A team of scientists have enhanced their understanding of the brain's visual system and how it identifies and retains patterns and images.
University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts and College of Science and Engineering conducted the research.
The researchers' findings could help create training programs for people who must learn to detect subtle patterns quickly, such as doctors reading X-rays or air traffic controllers monitoring radars.
In addition, they appear to offer a resolution to a long-standing controversy surrounding the learning capabilities of the brain's early (or low-level) visual processing system.
"We've basically shown that learning can happen in the earliest stages of visual processing in the brain," said lead author, Stephen Engel of College of Liberal Arts.
The researchers looked at how well subjects could identify a faint pattern of bars on a computer screen that continuously decreased in faintness. They found that over a period of 30 days, subjects were able to recognize fainter and fainter patterns.
Before and after this training, they measured brain responses using EEG, which records electrical activity along the scalp produced by the firing of neurons within the brain.
"We discovered that learning actually increased the strength of the EEG signal. Critically, the learning was visible in the initial EEG response that arose after a subject saw one of these patterns. Even a tiny fraction of a second after a pattern was flashed, subjects showed bigger responses in their brain, said Engel.
Engel said these finding may also help adults with visual deficits such as lazy eye by accelerating the development of training procedures to improve the eye's capabilities.
The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.