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AI helps scientists understand brain activity behind thoughts

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A team led by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University has developed artificial intelligence (AI) models that help them better understand the brain computations that underlie thoughts. This is new, because until now there has been no method to measure thoughts. The researchers first developed a new model that can estimate thoughts by evaluating behavior, and then tested their model on a trained artificial brain where they found neural activity associated with those estimates of thoughts. The theoretical study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“For centuries, neuroscientists have studied how the works by relating brain activity to inputs and outputs. For instance, when studying the neuroscience of movement, scientists measure muscle movements as well as neuronal activity, and then relate those two measurements,” said corresponding author Dr. Xaq Pitkow, assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor and of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. “To study cognition in the brain, however, we don’t have anything to compare the measured to.”

To understand how the brain gives rise to , researchers first need to measure a thought. They developed a method called “Inverse Rational Control” that looks at a and infers the beliefs or thoughts that best explain that behavior.

Traditionally, researchers in this field have worked with the idea that animals solve tasks optimally, behaving in a way that maximizes their net benefits. But when scientists study animal behavior, they find that this is not always the case.

“Sometimes animals have ‘wrong’ beliefs or assumptions about what’s going on in their environment, but still they try to find the best long-term outcomes for their task, given what they believe is going on around them. This could account for why animals seem to behave suboptimally,”