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Monkey Brains And Video Games: Pittsburgh Researchers Learn How To Learn

Neurology researcher Emily Oby explains the computer game that Rhesus monkeys in her lab play so she can study skill learning.

Learning a new skill can be tricky, and neuroscientists aren’t entirely sure how humans do it.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are using video games, brain implants and Rhesus monkeys in an effort to figure it out. 

The implants are the same kind of hardware used with human volunteers for prosthetic research, and about the size of a human pinky finger nail. Once a device is placed in a monkey's brain, they can control a cursor on a computer with their mind.

“As the experimenter, we can map that in a way that’s intuitive, so the monkey doesn’t have to do anything to learn,” said Pitt's Emily Oby, the project's lead researcher.  

When the monkeys, named Lincoln and Nelson, make the cursor hit the target, they get a treat. Oby said they like bananas.

She said Nelson is her favorite.

"He was better at the test," said Oby. “[Lincoln] was good too. He’s maybe not as good of a learner, so it’s even more impressive that he could learn these skills, also.”

Once a monkey figures out how the game works, Oby reprograms it, changing which neurons control the cursor. That means, to get a treat, the monkey must figure out new neuro activity patterns to hit the target.

Oby said this is probably frustrating for Nelson and Lincoln.

“But I think, because they have done the experiment a few times,” she said, “they sort of learn, like 'OK if I just keep trying, eventually I’m going to figure something out that’s gonna work.'”

Though researchers are just looking at one specific task in animal subjects, it provides a basic understanding for general skill learning, which has implications for future medical innovations.

“Whether it be a paralyzed individual learning to use a brain-computer interface or a stroke survivor who wants to regain normal motor function,” said CMU biomedical engineer Steve Chase, one of the project’s senior researchers. “If we can look directly at the brain during motor learning, we believe we can design neurofeedback strategies that facilitate the process that leads to the formation of new neural activity patterns.”

studyhighlighting the team's latest findings was published this week in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.