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Cradle of arbitration in the brain identified

Scientists have pinpointed areas of the brain - the inferior lateral prefrontal cortex and frontopolar cortex - that seem to serve as this “arbitrator” between the two decision-making systems, weighing the reliability of the predictions each makes and then allocating control accordingly.

In John O’Doherty’s study, participants played a game on a computer while connected to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that monitored their brain activity. Participants were instructed to try to make optimal choices in order to gather coins of a certain color, which were redeemable for money.

During the game, the participants were told which coins would be redeemable each round and given a choice to navigate right or left at two stages, knowing that they would collect only the coins in their final room. Sometimes all of the coins were redeemable, making the task more habitual.

By altering the probability of getting from one room to another, the researchers were able to further test the extent of participants’ behavior With the results, they were able to compare the fMRI data and choices made by the subjects against several computational models they constructed to account for behavior.

The model that most matched the experimental data involved the two brain systems making separate predictions about which action to take.

Audio may be new ‘sight’ for the blind

Researchers have developed a new Sensory Substitution Device (SSD), that transmits shape and color information through a composition of pleasant musical tones, or “soundscapes”, thus helping the blind to “see” colors and shapes.

Auditory or tactile stimulation, SSDs scan images and transform the information into audio or touch signals that users are trained to understand, enabling them to recognise the image without seeing it.  Most SSDs do not have the ability to provide color information, and some of the tactile and auditory systems used are said to be unpleasant after prolonged use.

The EyeMusic, developed by senior investigator Prof. Amir Amedi, PhD, and his team scans an image and uses musical pitch to represent the location of pixels. The higher the pixel on a vertical plane, the higher the pitch of the musical note associated with it.
Timing is used to indicate horizontal pixel location. Notes played closer to the opening cue represent the left side of the image, while notes played later in the sequence represent the right side.

Additionally, color information is conveyed by the use of different musical instruments to create the sounds In addition to successfully identifying shapes and colors, users in the new EyeMusic study indicated they found the SSD's soundscapes to be relatively pleasant and potentially tolerable for prolonged use.

Being in dark for long could improve hearing

Researchers at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University have overturned conventional wisdom, showing that the brains of adult mice can also be re-wired to compensate for a temporary vision loss by improving their hearing.

The findings may lead to treatments for people with hearing loss or tinnitus, Patrick Kanold, an associate professor of biology at UMD who partnered with Hey-Kyoung Lee, an associate professor of neuroscience at JHU, to lead the study, said.

“There is some level of interconnectedness of the senses in the brain that we are revealing here,” Kanold said. “We can perhaps use this to benefit our efforts to recover a lost sense,” Lee said.

“By temporarily preventing vision, we may be able to engage the adult brain to change the circuit to better process sound.” Kanold explained that there is an early “critical period” for hearing, similar to the better-known critical period for vision.

The auditory system in the brain of a very young child quickly learns its way around its sound environment, becoming most sensitive to the sounds it encounters most often. But once that critical period is past, the auditory system doesn’t respond to changes in the individual’s soundscape.

After the adult mice were returned to a normal light-dark cycle, their vision was unchanged. But they heard much better than before.

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