What Happens In The Brain During Observational Learning?

Humans engage in observational learning all the time. It is exactly what it sounds like. If you observe your friend getting sick after eating some questionable shrimp, you will know not to eat that shrimp. You did not need to experience the food poisoning yourself—you just needed to see it happen to your friend.

In a new study in mice, NYSCF — Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Kay Tye, PhD, Assistant Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues at MIT have uncovered the brain circuitry involved in the observational learning process.

Inducing Observational Learning

First, the researchers examined what happens to mice that watch another mouse undergo an electric shock (we will call these mice the “observer mice”). The electric shock was always paired with the presentation of a tone. This trained the mice undergoing the shock to fear the tone.

The researchers then played the tone for the observer mice. The observer mice also feared the tone, indicating that they had engaged in observational learning.

Reading Brain Activity

The team then played the tone and examined activity in the brains of the observer mice using a process called neural trajectory analysis. This technique shows how neurons change their firing rates during learning.

When the observer mice heard the tone, activity in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and basolateral amygdala (BLA) increased. The ACC is known to be involved in social information, and the BLA helps process emotion. This suggests that during observational learning, the ACC becomes active when the mouse sees something bad happen to another mouse, and then this information is passed along to the BLA, which helps the mouse form an association between the cue (the tone) and an undesired outcome.

Observation Versus Experience

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers took the neurons in the ACC that connect to neurons in the BCC and blocked them from communicating with each other in the observer mice. In this case, the mice did not show fear when the tone was played.

When the team did the same to the mice receiving the shocks, however, the mice still feared the tone. They learned through experience rather than observation, and they did not need their ACC to extract social information.

Next, Dr. Tye hopes to study the role of this circuit in other types of observational learning, such as when a mouse sees another mouse perform a task or earn a reward.

For more information on this study, check out the paper in Cell or this article from MIT News.

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