The aim of our group is to better understand how mechanisms of learning and brain plasticity change over the life span. We want to address this goal by investigating perceptual learning (PL) in the visual sensory system in children, young adults and older adults, as a model.
What is PL? In the 1860ies, Alfred Volkmann, Fechner’s brother-in-law, reported that repeated practice of a tactile discrimination task improved the discrimination of tactile cues presented to the skin, indicative of PL in the somatosensory system. Later studies showed that repeated practice to detect or discriminate a visual feature (for example, a visual orientation or a visual motion direction) improved the detection or discrimination of that trained visual feature. This type of PL occurs in the visual sensory system and is therefore referred to as visual perceptual learning (VPL). VPL is a powerful tool to investigate mechanisms of learning and plasticity in a controlled fashion in a well-understood model system (the visual sensory system). Insights from VPL have broader significance, because many mechanisms involved in VPL (for example, supervision during training or consolidation after training) are also involved in other types of learning.
Most studies have examined the mechanisms of VPL and visual plasticity in healthy young adults (typically between 18 – 30 years old), begging the question whether such mechanisms are stable over the life span. The brain changes fundamentally from childhood to young adulthood, and then again from young adulthood to older adulthood, suggesting that mechanisms of VPL and visual plasticity might change as well.
We want to investigate this by examining children, young adults and older adults using a combination of psychophysics and brain imaging. For brain imaging we will use, among other techniques, a recently advanced in vivo imaging approach in human participants, referred to as functional magnetic resonance spectroscopy (fMRS). By means of fMRS concentrations of chief excitatory (Glutamate & its precursor Glutamine, referred to together as Glx) and inhibitory (GABA) neurotransmitters within a given brain area (e.g., visual cortex) at a given time-point (e.g., at the beginning, during, or at the end of visual training) can be measured (see below for an example spectrum measured by fMRS).
Our research is supported by the Emmy Noether Program of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) [Project Number 491290285 to Dr. Sebastian Frank]. If you are interested in our research or if you would like to participate in our experiments, please contact the group leader by email: email@example.com