The bit of your brain that signals how bad things could be

July 28, 2014

An evolutionarily ancient and tiny part of the brain tracks expectations about nasty events, finds new UCL research.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates for the first time that the human habenula, half the size of a pea, tracks predictions about negative events, like painful electric shocks, suggesting a role in learning from bad experiences.

Brain scans from 23 healthy volunteers showed that the habenula activates in response to pictures associated with painful electric shocks, with the opposite occurring for pictures that predicted winning money.

Previous studies in animals have found that habenula activity leads to avoidance as it suppresses dopamine, a brain chemical that drives motivation. In animals, habenula cells have been found to fire when bad things happen or are anticipated.

"The habenula tracks our experiences, responding more the worse something is expected to be," says senior author Dr Jonathan Roiser of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. "For example, the habenula responds much more strongly when an electric shock is almost certain than when it is unlikely. In this study we showed that the habenula doesn't just express whether something leads to or not; it signals quite how much bad outcomes are expected."

During the experiment, healthy volunteers were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, and brain images were collected at high resolution because the habenula is so small. Volunteers were shown a random sequence of pictures each followed by a set chance of a good or bad outcome, occasionally pressing a button simply to show they were paying attention. Habenula activation tracked the changing expectation of bad and good events.

"Fascinatingly, people were slower to press the button when the picture was associated with getting shocked, even though their response had no bearing on the outcome." says lead author Dr Rebecca Lawson, also at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. "Furthermore, the slower people responded, the more reliably their habenula tracked associations with shocks. This demonstrates a crucial link between the habenula and motivated behaviour, which may be the result of dopamine suppression."

The habenula has previously been linked to depression, and this study shows how it could be involved in causing symptoms such low motivation, pessimism and a focus on negative experiences. A hyperactive habenula could cause people to make disproportionately negative predictions.

"Other work shows that ketamine, which has profound and immediate benefits in patients who failed to respond to standard antidepressant medication, specifically dampens down habenula activity," says Dr Roiser. "Therefore, understanding the habenula could help us to develop better treatments for treatment-resistant depression."

Explore further: Getting a grip on sleep

More information: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1323586111

Related Stories

Getting a grip on sleep

May 14, 2013

All mammals sleep, as do birds and some insects. However, how this basic function is regulated by the brain remains unclear. According to a new study by researchers from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, a brain region called ...

Recommended for you

Imaging technique maps serotonin activity in living brains

October 20, 2016

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that's partly responsible for feelings of happiness and for mood regulation in humans. This makes it a common target for antidepressants, which block serotonin from being reabsorbed by neurons ...

ALS study reveals role of RNA-binding proteins

October 20, 2016

Although only 10 percent of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) cases are hereditary, a significant number of them are caused by mutations that affect proteins that bind RNA, a type of genetic material. University of California ...

Overcoming egocentricity increases self-control

October 19, 2016

Neurobiological models of self-control usually focus on brain mechanisms involved in impulse control and emotion regulation. Recent research at the University of Zurich shows that the mechanism for overcoming egocentricity ...

Exercise may help ward off memory decline

October 19, 2016

Exercise may be associated with a small benefit for elderly people who already have memory and thinking problems, according to new research published in the October 19, 2016, online issue of Neurology, a medical journal of ...

Going for a run could improve cramming for exams

October 19, 2016

Ever worried that all the information you've crammed in during a study session might not stay in your memory? The answer might be going for a run, according to a new study published in Cognitive Systems Research.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Jul 29, 2014
Sounds like part of the brain responsible for anxiety.
4 / 5 (1) Jul 29, 2014
Could this be used for more effective addiction treatment programs?

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.