In order to learn about the world, an animal needs to do more than just pay attention to its surroundings. It also needs to learn which sights, sounds and senses in its environment are the most important and monitor how the importance of those details change over time.
Now, Stanford biologists think they've reckoned how animals sort through the details. A part of the brain called the para-ventricular thalamus, or PVT, functions as a kind of gatekeeper, making sure that the brain recognizes and tracks the most noticeable details of a situation.
Although the research is confined to mice for now, the results could one day help researchers better comprehend how humans learn or even help treat drug addiction.
Neuro-scientists also now have a new way to regulate learning. In further trials with mice, genetically modified so the team could control PVT activity with light, the researchers found they could impede or improve learning.
Those results could point to new ways to modify learning in mice, for the time being, by exciting or subduing PVT activity, as applicable. They also point, in the long run, as means to help treat drug addiction.