Wednesday, March 13, 2013

One Weird Trick to Boost Brain Connectivity

Answer: Take an LSAT course.

At least, that seems to contribute to changes in resting-state functional connectivity between distinct brain regions, according to a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience by Mackey et al (2013). The researchers took two groups of pre-law students and divided them into a training group, which was taking an LSAT prep course, and a control group, which intended to take the LSAT but was not enrolled in the prep course. After matching the subjects on demographics and intelligence metrics, functional connectivity was measured during a resting state scan (which, if you remember from a previous post, is a measure of correlation between timecourses between regions, rather than physical connectivity per se).

Taking the LSAT prep course was associated with increased correlations between the rostro-lateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC; a few centimeters inside your skull if you take your finger and press it against your forehead just to the lateral side of your eye) and regions of parietal cortex (located more to the rear of your skull, slightly forward and lateral of the bump in the back of your head). The RLPFC seems to help integrate abstract relations, such as detecting flaws in your spouse's arguments, while the parietal cortex processes individual relations between items. Overall, when they combine forces, as shown by a concomitant increase in functional connectivity and test scores, your LSAT skills become unstoppable.

The parietal cortices and striatal regions, particularly the caudate and putamen nuclei, showed a stronger coupling as a result of taking the prep course; presumably because of the strong dopaminergic inputs from the basal nuclei and striatum, which emit bursts of pleasure whenever you make a breakthrough in reasoning or learning. This should come as no surprise to classical scholars, as Aristotle once observed that the two greatest peaks of human pleasure are 1) thinking, and 2) hanky-panky. (Or something like that.)

Taken to the extreme, these results suggest efficient ways to manufacture super-lawyers, or at least to strengthen connectivity between disparate regions, and alter resting state dynamics. This touches on the concept of neuroplasticity, which suggests that our brains are adaptive and malleable throuhgout life, as opposed to traditional views that cognitive stability and capacity plateaus sometime in early adulthood, and from there makes a slow decline to the grave. Instead, regularly engaging your thinking muscles and trying new cognitive tasks, such as mathematics, music, and fingerpainting, as well as grappling with some of the finest and most profound philosophical minds humanity has produced - Kant, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Nietzsche, Andy's Brain Blog, et alia - will continue to change and transmogrify your brain in ways unimaginable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

Thanks to Simon Parker. (LSAT professors hate him!)

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