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Imagine driving on a dark road. In the distance you see a single light. As the light approaches it splits into two headlights. That’s a car, not a motorcycle, your brain tells you.

A new study found that neural circuits in the brain rapidly multitask between detecting and discriminating sensory input, such as headlights in the distance. That’s different from how electronic circuits work, where one circuit performs a very specific task. The brain, the study found, is wired in way that allows a single pathway to perform multiple tasks.

“We showed that circuits in the brain change or adapt from situations when you need to detect something versus when you need to discriminate fine details,” said Garrett Stanley, an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, whose lab performed the research. “One of the things the brain is good at is doing multiple things. Engineers have trouble with that.”

The research findings were published online in the journal NEURON on March 5. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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