Cereb Cortex. 2024 Jan 27:bhae013. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhae013. Online ahead of print.
One of the most important human faculties is the ability to acquire not just new memories but the capacity to perform entirely new tasks. However, little is known about the brain mechanisms underlying the learning of novel tasks. Specifically, it is unclear to what extent learning of different tasks depends on domain-general and/or domain-specific brain mechanisms. Here human subjects (n = 45) learned to perform 6 new tasks while undergoing functional MRI. The different tasks required the engagement of perceptual, motor, and various cognitive processes related to attention, expectation, speed-accuracy tradeoff, and metacognition. We found that a bilateral frontoparietal network was more active during the initial compared with the later stages of task learning, and that this effect was stronger for task variants requiring more new learning. Critically, the same frontoparietal network was engaged by all 6 tasks, demonstrating its domain generality. Finally, although task learning decreased the overall activity in the frontoparietal network, it increased the connectivity strength between the different nodes of that network. These results demonstrate the existence of a domain-general brain network whose activity and connectivity reflect learning for a variety of new tasks, and thus may underlie the human capacity for acquiring new abilities.