In the new study, led by Trenton Kriete, a postdoctoral researcher, the scientists show that the connections in the brain between the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia could play a similar role to the pointers used in computer science.
The researchers added new information about how the connections between those two regions of the brain could work into their model.
The result was that the model could be trained to understand simple sentences using a select group of words. After the training period, the researchers fed the model new sentences using familiar words in novel ways and found that the model could still comprehend the sentence structure.
While the results show that a pointer-like system could be at play in the brain, the function is not identical to the system used in computer science, the scientists said. It's similar to comparing an airplane's wing and a bird's wing, Randall O'Reilly, a professor in CU-Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and co-author of the study, said. They're both used for flying but they work differently.
In the brain, for example, the pointer-like system must still be learned. The brain has to be trained, in this case, to understand sentences while a computer can be programmed to understand sentences immediately.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.