Force of habit: Stress hormones switch off areas of the brain for goal-directed behaviour

July 25, 2012

Cognition psychologists at the Ruhr-Universität together with colleagues from the University Hospital Bergmannsheil (Prof. Dr. Martin Tegenthoff) have discovered why stressed persons are more likely to lapse back into habits than to behave goal-directed. The team of PD Dr. Lars Schwabe and Prof. Dr. Oliver Wolf from the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience have mimicked a stress situation in the body using drugs. They then examined the brain activity using functional MRI scanning. The researchers have now reported in the Journal of Neuroscience that the interaction of the stress hormones hydrocortisone and noradrenaline shut down the activity of brain regions for goal-directed behaviour. The brain regions responsible for habitual behaviour remained unaffected.

In order to test the different , the cognition used three substances - a placebo, the stress hormone hydrocortisone and yohimbine, which ensures that the stress hormone noradrenaline stays active longer. Part of the volunteers received hydrocortisone alone or just yohimbine, others both substances. A fourth group were administered a placebo. Altogether, the data of 69 volunteers was included in the study.

In the experiment, all participants - both male and female - learned that they would receive cocoa or as a reward if they chose certain symbols on the computer. After this learning phase, volunteers were allowed to eat as many oranges or as much chocolate pudding as they liked. "That weakens the value of the reward", explained Schwabe. "Whoever eats chocolate pudding will lose the attraction to cocoa. Whoever is satiated with oranges, has less appetite for orange juice." In this context, goal-directed behaviour means: Whoever has previously eaten the chocolate pudding, chooses the symbols leading to cocoa reward less frequently. Whoever is satiated with oranges, selects less frequently the symbols associated with orange juice. Based on previous results, the scientists assumed that only the combination of yohimbine and hydrocortisone attenuates goal-directed behaviour. They have now confirmed this hypothesis.

As expected, volunteers who took yohimbine and hydrocortisone did not behave goal-directed but according to habit. In other words, satiation with oranges or chocolate pudding had no effect. Persons who had taken a placebo or only one medication, on the other hand, behaved goal-directed and showed a satiating effect. The brain data revealed: The combination of yohimbine and hydrocortisone reduced the activity in the forebrain – in the so-called orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortex. These areas have been already previously associated with goal-directed behaviour. The which are important for habitual learning, on the other hand, were similarly active for all volunteers.

Explore further: Sudden stress shifts human brain into survival mode

More information: L. Schwabe, M. Tegenthoff, O. Höffken, O.Wolf (2012): Simultaneous glucocorticoid and Noradrenergic activity disrupts the neural basis of goal-directed action in the human brain, Journal of Neuroscience, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1304-12.2012

Related Stories

Sudden stress shifts human brain into survival mode

November 25, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- In threatening situations, the brain adapts within seconds to prepare for an appropriate response. Some regions are temporarily suppressed. Others become more active and form temporarily alliances for ...

Keeping one's eyes on the goal -- despite stress

November 28, 2011

Stressed people fall into habits and their behaviour is not goal-directed. That the neurotransmitter norepinephrine plays a decisive role here is now reported in the Journal of Neuroscience by scientists from Bochum led by ...

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 26, 2012
The article links odors to classically conditioned responses via the OFC, but also links operant conditioning and stress to free will via the same molecular mechanisms and neural pathways. The take home message is that the epigenetic effects of social odors on intracellular signaling and stocahstic gene expression may result in the problematic social disorders just as food odors may cause problematic eating disorders -- via classical conditioning of the HPG and HPA axes. Attempts to treat the problems that address only the associated operant conditioning, which occurs with rewards, address the free will aspect of operant conditioning and typically seem not to address the classically conditioned responses. Addressing both classical conditioning and operant conditioning HPG and HPA axis regulation would probably result in more effective treatment.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.