New research from the University of Illinois unearths a technique that can predict "with unprecedented accuracy" how well a subject can perform on complex tasks simply by analyzing a certain part of the brain. University of Illinois Beckman Institute director Art Kramer and colleagues have developed a way to predict how well study subjects would do on a strategic video game using established brain imaging techniques.
Using magnetic resonance imaging and multivoxel pattern analysis, researchers found differences in patterns of a "particular type of MRI signal, called T2, in the basal ganglia of study subjects." Analyzing these differences enabled researchers to predict between 55 – 68 percent of the differences in performance among 34 subjects who later learned to play a game developed by the university.
"There are many, many studies, hundreds perhaps, in which psychometricians, people who do the quantitative analysis of learning, try to predict from SATs, GREs, MCATS or other tests how well you’re going to succeed at something," said University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute director Art Kramer. But, he adds, never to this level of detail.
First subjects had their brains imaged, then spent 20 hours learning to play a game called Space Fortress. In the game players must destroy a fortress without losing their own ship to several different hazards and defenses. Subjects had little or no experience with video games prior to the study. The game was designed to test participants’ real-world cognitive skills.
"We predict up to three times as much of the variance (in learning) as you would using performance measures," Kramer said. The researchers tested their results against other measures and replicated the findings in new trials with different study subjects.
"Our data suggest that some persistent physiological and or neuroanatomical difference is actually the predictor of learning," Kramer said.
Kramer cautions that these findings should not be interpreted to mean that some people are destined to succeed or fail at a given task or learning challenge, adding that "many of these components of brain structure and function are changeable," he said.