Key Brain Chemical Affects Learning Ability

Studies have shown that changes in the brain chemical, GABA, affect learning and various other behaviors. This study was conducted to see if differences in GABA levels could affect the learning capacity of healthy men and women. Results from the study showed that when GABA was decreased in the brain, learning behaviors improved in human adults. The authors suggest that the GABA system in the brain, when modified, could play a role in “short-term motor learning behavior and learning related brain activity.”

There have been numerous studies showing that GABA is involved in various aspects of brain function, including learning behaviors. It has also been noted that different people have different capacities to learn. It has been speculated that this variation among individuals could be due to different levels of GABA in each individual’s brain. This study was undertaken to analyze whether different levels of GABA in the brain could be the reason behind the variation in learning capacities among human adults. Learning capacities tested here were more physical in nature. Researchers aimed at analyzing whether GABA levels have an effect on a person’s ability to learn a motor skill.

* A total of 12 participants aged between 21 and 31 years agreed to take part in the study.
* All participants’ brains were stimulated with special equipment. This stimulation decreased GABA in the brain. The participants’ brain GABA activity was checked simultaneously using brain scans.
* Along with the brain stimulation, the volunteers were asked to learn a predetermined computer-aided skill that required learned reflexes.
* Analysis was made of the efficiency of playing and learning the game, and levels of GABA in the brain.

* Before the experiment began, the participants who had the least GABA concentration in their brains showed the fastest reflexes during a skills test.
* All participants exposed to the test showed some degree of learning with increasingly faster response times to the game.
* Results also showed that individuals whose brain GABA concentration was deemed to have decreased the most, performed better at learning the skill.
* In brain scans, these individuals who showed most changes in the scans during the learning process learned the skill faster.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The authors of this study agree that, although this study shows that low GABA in the brain leads to better and faster learning of a skill, it does not explain why. They suggest further research in this area to understand better the link between GABA levels and learning motor skills. They also suggest that other chemicals in the brain have not been considered in this study. These other chemicals may also play a role in learning.

This study shows that “responsiveness of the GABA system to modulation has a strong relationship with motor learning” and learning behaviors especially in the short term. The authors suggest that this may have implications for therapy of some diseases, too. They write that stroke patients who have been paralyzed or have lost many of their motor skills could benefit from this intervention. Therapies that aim at reduction of GABA levels in their brains could help them regain their skills. The authors conclude that based on the principles of their study as well as the evidence of this in animal studies, reduction of GABA levels could be replicated in human stroke patients, too.

For More Information:
The Role of GABA in Human Motor Learning
Publication Journal: Current Biology, March 2011
By Charlotte J Stagg; Velicia Bachtiar; University of Oxford, England

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.