State-dependencies of learning across brain scales

Front Comput Neurosci. 2015 Feb 26;9:1. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2015.00001. eCollection 2015.


Learning is a complex brain function operating on different time scales, from milliseconds to years, which induces enduring changes in brain dynamics. The brain also undergoes continuous "spontaneous" shifts in states, which, amongst others, are characterized by rhythmic activity of various frequencies. Besides the most obvious distinct modes of waking and sleep, wake-associated brain states comprise modulations of vigilance and attention. Recent findings show that certain brain states, particularly during sleep, are essential for learning and memory consolidation. Oscillatory activity plays a crucial role on several spatial scales, for example in plasticity at a synaptic level or in communication across brain areas. However, the underlying mechanisms and computational rules linking brain states and rhythms to learning, though relevant for our understanding of brain function and therapeutic approaches in brain disease, have not yet been elucidated. Here we review known mechanisms of how brain states mediate and modulate learning by their characteristic rhythmic signatures. To understand the critical interplay between brain states, brain rhythms, and learning processes, a wide range of experimental and theoretical work in animal models and human subjects from the single synapse to the large-scale cortical level needs to be integrated. By discussing results from experiments and theoretical approaches, we illuminate new avenues for utilizing neuronal learning mechanisms in developing tools and therapies, e.g., for stroke patients and to devise memory enhancement strategies for the elderly.

Keywords: brain scales; computational modeling; learning; plasticity; state-dependencies.

Publication types

  • Review