Scientists pinpoint the brain circuitry linked to making healthy or unhealthy choices

October 30, 2011 By Yasmin Anwar, University of California - Berkeley

(Medical Xpress) -- What drives addicts to repeatedly choose drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, overeating, gambling or kleptomania, despite the risks involved?

Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have pinpointed the exact locations in the brain where calculations are made that can result in addictive and .

UC Berkeley researchers have found how neural activity in the brain's orbitofrontal and regulates our choices. These astonishing new findings could pave the way for more targeted treatments for everything from drug and to obsessive-compulsive disorders.

'The better we understand our decision-making , the better we can target treatment, whether it's pharmaceutical, behavioral or ," said Jonathan Wallis, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and the principal investigator of the study to be published in the Oct. 30 online issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Wallis was inspired to look into the behind substance abuse when he observed the lengths to which addicts will go to fulfill their , despite the downside of their habit: He asked, "What has the drug done to their brains that makes it so difficult for them not to make that choice? What is preventing them from making the ?"

In the new study, he and fellow researchers targeted the and anterior cingulate cortex –- two areas in the frontal brain -- because previous research has shown that patients with damage to these areas of the brain are impaired in the choices they make. While these individuals may appear perfectly normal on the surface, they routinely make decisions that create chaos in their lives. A similar dynamic has been observed in chronic drug addicts, alcoholics and people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

"They get divorced, quit their jobs, lose their friends and lose all their money," Wallis said. "All the decisions they make are bad ones."

To test their hypothesis that these areas of the brain were the key players in impaired decision making, the UC Berkeley researchers measured the neural activity of macaque monkeys as they played games in which they identified the pictures most likely to deliver juice through a spout into their mouths.

The animals quickly learned which pictures would most frequently deliver the greatest amount of juice, enabling researchers to see what calculations they were making, and in which part of the brain. The brains of macaques function similarly to those of humans in basic decision making. The exercise was designed to see how the animals weigh costs, benefits and risks.

The results show that the orbitofrontal cortex regulates neural activity, depending on the value or "stakes" of a decision. This part of the brain enables you to switch easily between making important decisions, such as what school to attend or which job to take, and making trivial decisions such as coffee versus tea or burrito versus pizza. However, in the case of addicts and people with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex, the does not change based on the gravity of the decision, presenting trouble when these individuals try to get their brains in gear to make sound choices, the findings suggest.

As for the anterior cingulate cortex, the study found that when this part of the brain functions normally, we learn quickly whether a decision we made matched our expectations. If we eat food that makes us sick, we do not eat it again. But in people with a malfunctioning anterior cingulate cortex, these signals are missing, and so they continue to make poor choices, Wallis said.

"This is the first study to pin down the calculations made by these two specific parts of the brain that underlie healthy decision-making," Wallis said.

A clearer understanding of how people with addictions make decisions may help remove some of the stigma of this condition, Wallis said. However, Wallis warned that these findings should not be used as a rationale for addicts to maintain unhealthy habits. Chronic drug and alcohol use changes the brain circuitry, and that can lead to unhealthy choices, he said.

If anything, he said, the findings offer hope that, through understanding the mechanism of addiction, treatment can be targeted at these risk-weighing, decision-making centers of the .

Explore further: What you want vs. how you get it: New neuroconomics study

Related Stories

What you want vs. how you get it: New neuroconomics study

October 21, 2011
New research reveals how we make decisions. Birds choosing between berry bushes and investors trading stocks are faced with the same fundamental challenge - making optimal choices in an environment featuring varying costs ...

Researchers determine region of the brain necessary for making decisions about economic value

May 18, 2011
Neuroeconomic research at the University of Pennsylvania has conclusively identified a part of the brain that is necessary for making everyday decisions about value. Previous functional magnetic imaging studies, during which ...

Recommended for you

New neuron-like cells allow investigation into synthesis of vital cellular components

January 22, 2018
Neuron-like cells created from a readily available cell line have allowed researchers to investigate how the human brain makes a metabolic building block essential for the survival of all living organisms. A team led by researchers ...

Finding unravels nature of cognitive inflexibility in fragile X syndrome

January 22, 2018
Mice with the genetic defect that causes fragile X syndrome (FXS) learn and remember normally, but show an inability to learn new information that contradicts what they initially learned, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. ...

Epilepsy linked to brain volume and thickness differences

January 22, 2018
Epilepsy is associated with thickness and volume differences in the grey matter of several brain regions, according to new research led by UCL and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.5 / 5 (10) Oct 30, 2011
Excellent. By killing off that part of the brain that creates unhealthy choices, we can now cure Republican and Libertarian disease.

1 / 5 (2) Oct 30, 2011
Maybe the stem cells treated with dense aether could be injected to accelerate the healing...;-)

BTW Probably more relevant for subject: the people who tend to biased, schematic solutions have problem with communication between various areas of brain.


3 / 5 (2) Oct 30, 2011
Anterior cingulate cortex. Oh my. Another acronym.
No human is acronym free.

"Exact location"
Well, how many of you neurons living in ACC have ADD?
Why are you doing this? Haven't we always treated you well?
1.5 / 5 (8) Oct 30, 2011
Vendicar, first of all it's Liberalism that has been proven by the scientific method to be a form of insanity. And from my own unfortunate experiences with Leftists, I have serious doubts that Liberals are even sentient. No, I'm not joking.
That said, this is not the proper venue for politics. As a non-sentient probably don't understand that. You being a communist, a hive animal, I would guess you recieve your motivation from your hives select elite (Obama)through some kind of mass communication method...airbourne hormones, popular music, sitcoms,teleprompter speeches, bumper sticker and inane slogans. Your elites so disdain hearing from their underlings..but could you please excrete something requesting that the hard sciences be unmolested....please ? No...I suppose you won't...after all simple empathy is beyond the non sentient.
3.2 / 5 (5) Oct 30, 2011

You will be 1 with BORG.
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 30, 2011

You will be 1 with BORG.

Vendi....OK...bring the Bong and the water pipe back to the store. I knew selling it to you would lead to these comments and people would NOT understand your need to inhale your medication before posting. You are the only person who come into the store and purchases the mother-of-all Bongs...The Neutron Bong! Omar? Omar! I was not going to say anything but Vendi is smoking your repulsive neutron source and he got it from my store!
3 / 5 (4) Oct 31, 2011
I am unimpressed by Conservative Cain's promotion of smoking.
4.4 / 5 (5) Oct 31, 2011
Do you guys honestly believe that all these things can be simply narrowed down to liberalism, conservatism, communism etc? Because then, if you really care, you got to know that you're merely preaching doctrines while not knowing what you're really talking about.
If knowledge is more of value to you than your ego, then don't forget that you always have the chance to revise.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 31, 2011
nice stock pick, medicalxpress.. marijuana is your pick for depicting drug dependance/abuse? ..almost like finding astrology charts on a report about depression.
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 31, 2011
It is quite clear that if you remove enough damaged brain material any Conservative is cured of his mental disease.

Sometimes the Republican disease has damaged so much brain tissue that the entire brain needs to be removed, and like mike the headless chicken, the Republicans are then free to live out their lives in ConservaTard normalcy.

People are often unaware that their brains have been removed.

That is until they begin to mumble things about missing birth certificates, illuminati conspiracies, bigfoot sightings, alien rectal probes, and the desire to elect a pizza salesman to the presidencey.
not rated yet Oct 31, 2011
You know, this could be a landmark article that indicates the worst case scenario of modern day decadent society. Besides MJ, ignominious drugs, junk food, and vaccines are pushed upon the public more than ever. There are also drugs in public drinking water thanks to drug addict excrement including artificial fluoridation by city gov'ts.

Who is to say if all that ingested garbage isn't damaging our brains? Causing us to believe and trust in politicians no matter how much they lie to us?

Imagine being able to go into this world being able to trust your own judgment as well as the people around you. Imagine how much better this world would be if we were all better error detectors.

If the above garbage is really causing us damage, for the sake of humanity and our loved ones, we have to get rid of the garbage.

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.