Ready to learn? Brain scans can tell you

Our memories work better when our brains are prepared to absorb new information, according to a new study by MIT researchers. A team led by Professor John Gabrieli has shown that activity in a specific part of the brain, known as the parahippocampal cortex (PHC), predicts how well people will remember a visual scene.

MIT neuroscientists showed that activity in a part of the brain called the parahippocampal cortex correlates with the brain's preparedness to learn new information. Image: Julie Yoo

The new study, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that when the PHC was very active before people were shown an image, they were less likely to remember it later.

''When that area is busy, for some reason or another, it's less ready to learn something new,'' says Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience and a principal investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

The PHC, which has previously been linked to recollection of visual scenes, wraps around the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for memory formation.

However, this study is the first to investigate how PHC activity before a scene was presented would affect how well the scene was remembered. Lead author of the paper is Julie Yoo, a postdoc at the McGovern Institute.

Subjects were shown 250 colour photographs of indoor and outdoor scenes as they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They were later shown 500 scenes - including the 250 they had already seen - as a test of their recollection of the first batch of images. The fMRI scans revealed that images were remembered better when there was lower activity in the PHC before the scenes were presented.