1. What is a synapse and how do synapses change during learning? 

Possible student response: Synapses are bridges or connections between nerve cells (neurons). Synapses among different neurons form, strengthen or weaken as one learns and stores new information.

2. How do the new studies reported in the article differ from previous neuroscience studies of synapses? What metaphor is used to describe the comparison between the studies?

Possible student response: The new studies examine the large-scale connections between regions of the brain, rather than synapses between individual neurons. The author describes studies that focus on individual neurons as missing “the forest for the trees.”

3. What do the researchers mean when they say that a brain region is flexible? Do scientists think that all brain regions are flexible?  

Possible student response: A flexible brain region can quickly connect to different brain regions, almost like being able to send e-mails to different people in quick succession. But not all brain regions are considered flexible. Some brain regions always send neural signals to the same brain regions, like only being able to send e-mails to the same people.

4. How did cognitive neuroscientist Raphael Gerraty and colleagues use associations between faces to study learning, and what did they find?

Possible student response: Volunteers were previously trained to associate a pair of faces and to associate one of the two faces with a reward. The volunteers were then tested to see how their brain reacted to the face that was not previously associated with the reward to see if a transfer of learning occurred. The brains of volunteers were scanned to measure flexibility or strength of connections among different brain regions. The observed connections were different in good learners compared with poor learners; for example, good learners had weaker connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which is involved in self-control and decision making) and the hippocampus (which is involved in memory).

5. What did neuroscientist Vinod Menon and colleagues find when they scanned the brains of children with and without disabilities doing math? 

Possible student response: Children with developmental dyscalculia who had trouble doing math problems had more connections among brain regions associated with mathematical problem solving than children who did not have the disability. Menon suggests that when compared with other brain regions, overconnected brain regions might not be as responsive to making new connections or breaking down old ones during the learning process.

6. What did Danielle Bassett and colleagues find when they scanned the brains of volunteers learning to tap out sequences on a keyboard? What could their finding imply about fast learners?

Possible student response: As the volunteers learned, some connections grew stronger and some grew weaker. For example, connections between the frontal cortex and the cingulate regions of the brain — which may be associated with paying attention, setting goals and making plans — decreased as people learned. Faster learners had fewer of those connections as their learning progressed, which may have made their brains more efficient.

7. How is learning efficiency generally related to brain flexibility? 

Possible student response: Faster learning appears to be associated with a certain degree of increased brain flexibility, or the ability of brain regions to change their communications with other brain regions instead of maintaining the same rigid connections.

8. Use the diagram, called “Too much of a good thing,” to describe how schizophrenia relates to flexibility in brain regions in this study? 

</b>Too much of a good thing</b> Compared with healthy people (top row), people with schizophrenia (bottom) and their close relatives (middle) showed signs of more flexibility across their brains. The greater the flexibility, the larger the spheres and redder the color. U. Braun et al/PNAS 2016

Possible student response: People with schizophrenia appear to have unusually high levels of brain flexibility when they are asked to perform a recall task. As shown in the figure, people with schizophrenia have more brain flexibility than their first-degree relatives who do not have schizophrenia, and in turn, those first-degree relatives have more brain flexibility than other healthy volunteers.

9. What important gap remains between the previous studies of synapses and the studies reported in this article? 

Possible student response: Previous studies of individual neurons examined the brain at a very microscopic level. The studies reported in this article describe at a more macroscopic level how brain regions communicate with each other. What is currently missing is the middle ground that shows how the microscopic and macroscopic views of brain function are related.

10. What positive aspect can you take away from this article as you move forward in your own learning this year?

Possible student response: The brain is constantly building neural pathways as it learns and changes in real time. Even if you aren’t extremely efficient at a task at first, your brain will likely become more efficient over time. Also, staying in a positive mood may be a way to increase brain flexibility and learn faster, though it hasn’t yet been concluded from studies to date.