Researchers take a look at the competitor's brain, find possible switching mechanism

September 19, 2014 by Bob Yirka, Medical Xpress report
Left hemisphere of J. Piłsudski's brain, lateral view. Credit: public domain

(Medical Xpress)—A small team of researchers at Yale University has found a possible logic switching mechanism in the brains of rhesus monkeys. In their paper published in the journal Science, the team describes how they attached brain monitoring devices to three rhesus monkeys and then set up an arrangement where the monkeys played a token-matching game with a computerized opponent—with a juice reward based payoff. Watching as different parts of the brain were activated during play revealed which parts of the brain were used for different game playing techniques.

The researchers note that both animal and human learning and subsequent behavior are based mostly on reinforcement and punishment—we all repeat behaviors that get us what we want and avoid those that either don't or lead to negative outcomes. But what happens in the brain when one person or animal is faced with changes to conditions due to the behavior of another and makes changes to their own behavior because of it—when the infamous light-bulb of cartoons turns on? That's what the researchers set out to learn.

The team first taught the how to play a token-based game—the objective was to win tokens (one was gained whenever the monkey chose the same target as the opponent) by outmaneuvering an opponent, using safe or relatively risky strategies—winning six tokens meant getting a favorite juice reward.

By hooking up the monkeys to devices able to read their brain waves, the researchers were able to see which were being used during different parts of game playing, most specifically, when a monkey chose to deviate from what it had previously learned was a successful move—because of perceived deviations taken by its opponent. They found that a part of the brain known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) became active when the monkeys chose to respond to a perceived deviation from normal play by an opponent, suggesting that the dmPFC might be a switch of sorts (when their has that "aha! I see what you're doing" moment) between simple behavior processing and processing that takes more thought, and strategy. They noted also that there were varying degrees of activity in the dmPFC depending on how much the monkey chose to deviate from normal play, suggesting that the dmPFC might serve as an override control mechanism to switch on processes that are more capable of dealing with suddenly changing circumstances.

The researchers also note that in people, some mental illness are characterized by an inability to perform such switching, which might mean therapies dedicated to the dmPFC might be an effective treatment option.

Explore further: Decision to give a group effort in the brain

More information: Neural correlates of strategic reasoning during competitive games, Published Online September 18 2014. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1256254

Although human and animal behaviors are largely shaped by reinforcement and punishment, choices in social settings are also influenced by information about the knowledge and experience of other decision-makers. During competitive games, monkeys increased their payoffs by systematically deviating from a simple heuristic learning algorithm and thereby countering the predictable exploitation by their computer opponent. Neurons in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) signaled the animal's recent choice and reward history that reflected the computer's exploitative strategy. The strength of switching signals in the dmPFC also correlated with the animal's tendency to deviate from the heuristic learning algorithm. Therefore, the dmPFC might provide control signals for overriding simple heuristic learning algorithms based on the inferred strategies of the opponent.

Related Stories

Decision to give a group effort in the brain

December 23, 2012
A monkey would probably never agree that it is better to give than to receive, but they do apparently get some reward from giving to another monkey.

Do not disturb: How the brain filters out distractions

July 4, 2014
You know the feeling? You are trying to dial a phone number from memory… you have to concentrate…. then someone starts shouting out other numbers nearby. In a situation like that, your brain must ignore the distraction ...

Enjoying the possibility of defeat: Suspense and uncertainty predict how much players enjoy a game

September 3, 2014
Winning isn't everything, and in fact can even be a bit boring. Some people actually enjoy a game of tennis or poker more if their mettle is tested by a strong opponent – regardless of the outcome. It's the suspense and ...

Study of brain activity in monkeys shows how the brain processes mistakes made by others

January 11, 2013
Humans and other animals learn by making mistakes. They can also learn from observing the mistakes of others. The brain processes self-generated errors in a region called the medial frontal cortex (MFC) but little is known ...

Recommended for you

Being hungry shuts off perception of chronic pain

March 22, 2018
Pain can be valuable. Without it, we might let our hand linger on a hot stove, for example. But longer-lasting pain, such as the inflammatory pain that can arise after injury, can be debilitating and costly, preventing us ...

From signal propagation to consciousness: New findings point to a potential connection

March 22, 2018
Researchers at New York University have discovered a novel mechanism through which information can be effectively transmitted across many areas in the brain—a finding that offers a potentially new way of understanding how ...

Using simplicity for complexity—new research sheds light on the perception of motion

March 22, 2018
A team of biologists has deciphered how neurons used in the perception of motion form in the brain of a fly —a finding that illustrates how complex neuronal circuits are constructed from simple developmental rules.

Focus on early stage of illness may be key to treating ALS, study suggests

March 22, 2018
A new kind of genetically engineered mouse and an innovation in how to monitor those mice during research have shed new light on the early development of an inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Flow of spinal fluid disrupted in inherited developmental disorder

March 22, 2018
Scientists have pinpointed the mechanism behind hydrocephalus, an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain, in an inherited developmental disorder called Noonan syndrome.

Stiffness of connection influences exchange of physical cues during coordinated movements

March 22, 2018
When two people coordinate their movements, such as by holding hands or moving furniture, they exchange physical cues through the objects that connect them. New research published in PLOS Computational Biology suggests that ...


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.