How animals think

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Credit: Paul Stowe

Neuroscientists wanting to understand the brain’s coding language have conventionally studied how its networks of cells respond to sensory information and how they generate behaviour, such as movement or speech. But they couldn’t look in detail at the important bit in between — the vast quantities of neuronal activity that conceal patterns representing the animal’s mood or desires, and which help it to calibrate its behaviour. Even just a few years ago, measuring the activities of specific networks that underlie internal brain states was impossible.

A slew of new techniques is starting to change that. These methods allow scientists to track electrical activity in the brain in unprecedented detail, to quantify an animal’s natural behaviour on millisecond timescales, and to find patterns in the mountains of data these experiments generate. These patterns could be signatures of the innumerable internal states that a brain can adopt. Now the challenge is to find out what these states mean.

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“We used to think of animals as being kind of stimulus-response machines,” says neuroscientist Anne Churchland at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York. “Now we’re starting to realize that all kinds of really interesting stuff is being generated within their brains that changes the way that sensory inputs are processed — and so changes the animals’ behavioural output.”

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