Past experience changes the trajectory of neural changes following new learning
Erik Wing1, Jennifer Ryan1, Asaf Gilboa1; 1Baycrest
The capacity for learning new information is highly contingent upon prior knowledge. Learning about a completely new topic or domain can take considerable time, whereas learning new information that connects with existing knowledge is typically much easier and tends to be more robust. In the brain, these two scenarios may differ in the degree to which cortically-mediated memory structures can be harnessed to support integration of newly-encountered information. Past work suggests that the presence of relevant schemas or abstracted conceptual networks, supported by the neocortex, can speed the process through which new knowledge is acquired. In the present MRI study, we examined this question by comparing microstructural and functional changes following new learning in the domain of visual object identification. A group of expert birdwatchers and matched controls performed an initial bird identification task on unfamiliar species while being scanned. Both groups were then given training on how to differentiate the highly overlapping items for two hours outside the MRI. Post-training task performance showed improvement for trained concepts, with a greater increase in accuracy for experts. In experts, improved learning was also associated with neural changes in visual processing and frontoparietal regions that appeared to support both perceptual and conceptual aspects of rapid learning, including the differentiation of highly similar items and the ability to abstract across variable exemplars of the same concept or category. These findings support theoretical accounts of memory that stress the importance of prior knowledge in determining how new information is integrated into existing knowledge structures.
Topic Area: LONG-TERM MEMORY: Semantic
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April 13–16 | 2024