Humans can perform a vast array of mental operations and adjust their behavioral responses based on external instructions and internal beliefs. For example, to tap your feet to a musical beat, your brain has to process the incoming sound and also use your internal knowledge of how the song goes

MIT neuroscientists have now identified a strategy that the brain uses to rapidly select and flexibly perform different mental operations. To make this discovery, they applied a mathematical framework known as dynamical systems analysis to understand the logic that governs the evolution of neural activity across large populations of neurons.

"The brain can combine internal and external cues to perform novel computations on the fly," says Mehrdad Jazayeri, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, a member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

Previous work from Jazayeri's group has found that the brain can control when it initiates a movement by altering the speed at which patterns of neural activity evolve. Here, they found that the brain controls this speed flexibly based on two factors: external sensory inputs and adjustment of internal states, which correspond to knowledge about the rules of the task being performed.

Evan Remington, a McGovern Institute postdoc, is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the June 6 edition of Neuron. Other authors are former postdoc Devika Narain and MIT graduate student Eghbal Hosseini.

Ready, set, go

Neuroscientists believe that "cognitive flexibility," or the ability to rapidly adapt to new information, resides in the brain's higher cortical areas, but little is known about how the brain achieves this kind of flexibility.

To test this, the researchers recorded neural activity in the frontal cortex of animals trained to perform a flexible timing task called "ready, set, go." In this task, the animal sees two visual flashes—"ready" and "set"—that are separated by an interval anywhere between 0.5 and 1 second, and initiates a movement—"go"— sometime after "set."

Neural signals recorded during the "set-go" interval carried information about both the multiplier and the measured length of the "ready-set" interval, but the nature of these representations seemed bewilderingly complex.

The application of this approach to neural data in the "ready, set, go" task enabled Jazayeri and his colleagues to discover how the brain adjusts the inputs to and initial conditions of frontal cortex to control movement times flexible.

"A bridge between behavior and neurobiology."

Many unanswered questions remain about how the brain achieves this flexibility, the researchers say. They are now trying to find out what part of the brain sends information about the multiplier to the frontal cortex, and they also hope to study what happens in these neurons as they first learn tasks that require them to respond flexibly.

"We haven't connected all the dots from behavioral flexibility to neurobiological details. But what we have done is to establish an algorithmic understanding based on the mathematics of dynamical systems that serve as a bridge between behavior and neurobiology," Jazayeri says.