Carnegie Mellon University
Alison Barth

A one-woman brain trust

By researching how the brain rewires itself, Professor Alison Barth is reshaping the future of learning and memory.

Professor Alison Barth has set her sights on a new view of learning by studying how the brain works in an unprecedented way.

There are 100 billion neurons in the human brain that rewire themselves and interact differently after every single sensory experience.  Historically, these neurons have often been studied individually.  Barth is examining how neurons rewire at the macro level. 

“For 20 to 30 years, researchers have been recording one neuron at a time, and then two neurons, and so on,” she says. “Our team decided to look at them from a different perspective – counting how synapses change between different types of neurons.” 

This large-scale, statistical approach is allowing Barth and her team to answer questions like “why do we remember some things and forget others?” and “why are some touches pleasant and others painful?” while gaining a deeper understanding of how the brain works with speed and accuracy. 

Barth hopes that in the future, her studies will have an impact on humankind, affecting the way we look at memory and learning.

“When we come to understand how the brain can rewire itself, we’ll be able to help people learn faster, or overcome brain injuries more efficiently and with less effort,” she says. “We might even be able to help people forget things they don’t want to remember.”

If that happens, the work she’s doing now may soon change the way we interact with the world every day.