Waiting for a sign? Researchers find potential brain 'switch' for new behavior

May 21, 2013
Brain diagram. Credit: dwp.gov.uk

You're standing near an airport luggage carousel and your bag emerges on the conveyor belt, prompting you to spring into action. How does your brain make the shift from passively waiting to taking action when your bag appears?

A new study from investigators at the University of Michigan and Eli Lilly may reveal the brain's "switch" for new behavior. They measured levels of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is involved in attention and memory, while rats monitored a screen for a signal. At the end of each trial, the rat had to indicate if a signal had occurred.

Researchers noticed that if a signal occurred after a long period of monitoring or "non-signal" processing, there was a spike in acetylcholine in the rat's right . No such spike occurred for another signal occurring shortly afterwards.

"In other words, the increase in acetylcholine seemed to activate or 'switch on' the response to the signal, and to be unnecessary if that response was already activated," said Cindy Lustig, one of the study's senior authors and an associate professor in the U-M Department of Psychology.

The researchers repeated the study in humans using (fMRI), which measures brain activity, and also found a short increase in right prefrontal cortex activity for the first signal in a series.

To connect the findings between rats and humans, they measured changes in , similar to the changes that produce the fMRI signal, in the brains of rats performing the task.

They again found a response in the right prefrontal cortex that only occurred for the first signal in a series. A follow-up experiment showed that direct stimulation of using drugs that target acetylcholine receptors could likewise produce these changes in oxygen.

Together, the studies' results provide some of the most direct evidence, so far, linking a specific neurotransmitter response to changes in in humans. The findings could guide the development of better treatments for disorders in which people have difficulty switching out of current behaviors and activating new ones. Repetitive behaviors associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism are the most obvious examples, and related mechanisms may underlie problems with preservative behavior in schizophrenia, dementia and aging.

The findings appear in the current issue of Journal of Neuroscience.

Explore further: Study provides potential explanation for mechanisms of associative memory

Related Stories

Study provides potential explanation for mechanisms of associative memory

December 13, 2011
Researchers from the University of Bristol have discovered that a chemical compound in the brain can weaken the synaptic connections between neurons in a region of the brain important for the formation of long-term memories. ...

Altered brain activity responsible for cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia

March 20, 2013
Cognitive problems with memory and behavior experienced by individuals with schizophrenia are linked with changes in brain activity; however, it is difficult to test whether these changes are the underlying cause or consequence ...

Reward linked to image is enough to activate brain's visual cortex

March 21, 2013
Once rhesus monkeys learn to associate a picture with a reward, the reward by itself becomes enough to alter the activity in the monkeys' visual cortex. This finding was made by neurophysiologists Wim Vanduffel and John Arsenault ...

Real-time brain feedback can help people overcome anxiety

May 9, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—People provided with a real-time readout of activity in specific regions of their brains can learn to control that activity and lessen their anxiety, according to new findings published online in the journal ...

Babies show visual consciousness at five months

April 19, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—A new study by scientists in France and Denmark has identified a neurological marker in the brain of babies as young as five months that is associated with visual consciousness, or the ability to process ...

Regulation of attention and concentration in brain unravelled

August 11, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- The prefrontal cortex of the brain is involved in memory processes and the ability to concentrate attentively. Neuroscientists from VU University Amsterdam have shown how and where this occurs in the prefrontal ...

Recommended for you

In witnessing the brain's 'aha!' moment, scientists shed light on biology of consciousness

July 27, 2017
Columbia scientists have identified the brain's 'aha!' moment—that flash in time when you suddenly become aware of information, such as knowing the answer to a difficult question. Today's findings in humans, combined with ...

Scientists block evolution's molecular nerve pruning in rodents

July 27, 2017
Researchers investigating why some people suffer from motor disabilities report they may have dialed back evolution's clock a few ticks by blocking molecular pruning of sophisticated brain-to-limb nerve connections in maturing ...

Social influences can override aggression in male mice, study shows

July 27, 2017
Stanford University School of Medicine investigators have identified a cluster of nerve cells in the male mouse's brain that, when activated, triggers territorial rage in a variety of situations. Activating the same cluster ...

Scientists become research subjects in after-hours brain-scanning project

July 27, 2017
A quest to analyze the unique features of individual human brains evolved into the so-called Midnight Scan Club, a group of scientists who had big ideas but almost no funding and little time to research the trillions of neural ...

Researchers reveal unusual chemistry of protein with role in neurodegenerative disorders

July 27, 2017
A common feature of neurodegenerative diseases is the formation of permanent tangles of insoluble proteins in cells. The beta-amyloid plaques found in people with Alzheimer's disease and the inclusion bodies in motor neurons ...

Mother's brain reward response to offspring reduced by substance addiction

July 27, 2017
Maternal addiction and its effects on children is a major public health problem, often leading to high rates of child abuse, neglect and foster care placement. In a study published today in the journal Human Brain Mapping, ...

0 comments

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.