A research which was sponsored by the Medical Research Council (MRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and Wellcome, and was carried out at the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit at the University of Oxford, by Dr Helen Barron and Dr David Dupret has revealed what occurs in the brain when you make an educative guess. The research was carried out using human and mouse brain activity as case study.

This researchers discovered how the cells in our brains collaborate to join up memories of different experiences, thereby making it possible to educated guesses. This process takes place in a region of the brain known as the hippocampus that is already known to play a role in learning and memory

The study, published in the scientific journal Cell, also discloses that brain cells can associate different memories while we are resting or sleeping, an essential process in creativity.

According to Dr Barron : “In everyday life we often infer connections or relationships between different things we see or hear. So even when we don’t know the full story, we can make an educated guess by joining-the-dots. For example, I’m looking for my friend Sam. Someone tells me that Ben is in the library. I know that Sam and Ben go everywhere together, so I guess that Sam is in the library too.

“Although this process is crucial to everyday life, until now, we didn’t know how the cells in our brains are able to form links between separate experiences.”

The study was carried out using MRI scans on people and by temporarily switching off the hippocampus in mice.

The human volunteers for this research had to play a virtual reality game where hearing a sound, such as running water, indicated that the volunteers would also see a colourful picture appear on the wall.

Then , they played another game where finding the colourful pictures would enable them to earn money. The sound was not directly linked to earning money, but the volunteers started to guess that the sound was linked to the prize and when they heard it, they would look for the reward.

The experiment was simulated in mice by playing a sound before displaying a picture created from LED lights. Then, in a different stage of the task, the mice were able to find a reward of sugar water if the lights were switched on. Like the people, the mice began linking the sound to the reward.

Dr Dupret said: “By carrying out similar experiments with both mice and people, this work shows that the process of establishing a link between separate events is common to both species. And by working with mice, it’s then possible to examine what’s going on in the brain of a mammal at the level of individual cells.”

In the mouse, the researchers were able to record the activity of brain cells that solely signified sounds, lights or rewards. As the mice started to deduce that a sound was logically connected to the reward via a light, they discovered that the cells began to fire in that order.

They continued to examine the mice when they rested after finishing the task and it was discovered that the mice’s brains began jumping over the intervening ‘light’ step. The ‘sound’ brain cells became functional with the ‘reward’ brain cells; connecting the dots between different experiences.

“This suggests that while the mice are resting, their brains are making new links between things they have not directly experienced together, and we think it’s this process that will help them make useful decisions in the future.” said Dr Dupret.

“Our results suggest the process is very similar in people and that has important implications. It suggests that periods of rest and sleep play an important role in creativity, where we draw insight from previous experience to come up with original ideas.” Added Dr Barron.

Dr Simon Fisher, Programme Manager for the Neurosciences and Mental Health Board at the MRC, said: “Our ability to put individual memories together to form new links helps us make day-to-day decisions. This study provides insight into how and where in the brain this key process takes place. It also suggests that while we are sleeping or resting, our brains are actively making these links, a process that may form the basis of creative thinking.

“This strong approach, of working with mice alongside comparable experiments with people, allows findings from one species to inform studies in the other and enhances the translation of biological knowledge from animal models through to humans.

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