Study reveals breakthrough in decoding brain function

September 25, 2017 by Francis Mccabe, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
James M. Myman, assistant professor of Psychology. Credit: UNLV

If there's a final frontier in understanding the human body, it's definitely not the pinky. It's the brain.

After four years of lab testing and complex neuro-decoding, a research team led by UNLV psychology professor James Hyman has struck a major breakthrough that could open the floodgates for research into the , or ACC, and how human brains learn.

The research, published this summer in the neuroscience journal Neuron, offers new insight into the ACC's role in guiding the brain's response and adaptation to unexpected outcomes. The study also showed the first cellular correlates of the extensively studied human phenomena known as feedback negativity. Hyman had previously found in 2015 conclusive evidence that the ACC in rodent brains reacts in the same manner as in humans to reward probability and outcome expectancy.

The study garnered a special preview article in the journal from Bruno Averbeck, a leading expert in the field from the National Institutes of Health.

The function of the brain's ACC is heavily studied, but many scientists believe it contributes to behavioral adaptation, detection of conflict and responding to and managing emotional reactions.

According to Hyman, the ACC essentially creates expectations about what's going to happen. Then, when the result of our actions leads to an outcome, our brain assesses whether that outcome was the same as what we expected. The ACC is integrally involved in this process. If the outcome is not what we expected, the ACC reacts with a larger electrical charge - known as feedback negativity - than if the outcome was expected.

The research team showed that when an expected outcome was not delivered, a neural signal in the brain's ACC was detected. This signal offers clues to the cellular origin of feedback negativity, and that the phenomenon may be generated as the neurons in the ACC shift from encoding expected to actual outcomes.

Our brains are constantly doing this, Hyman said.

"Generally, the ACC always has a negative electrical change to outcomes, it's just the size of this change varies by whether the outcome was the expected one or not and whether it was better or worse than expected," said Hyman. "Every single thing we do involves making predictions about what's going to happen next. Usually facile little things, such as opening an unlocked door," Hyman said.

For instance, if you go to open what you believe to be an unlocked door by its handle, your ACC is predicting the outcome that the door will open and you will walk in. If the door handle is locked and it does not open as predicted, an electrical reaction occurs that is readable. The ACC will then learn from the unexpected outcome of its initial prediction.

Now imagine you were playing a slot machine with a 75 percent chance of winning (we're pretending here). If the percentage was changed without you knowing to 25 percent, your ACC would still predict a positive outcome. When you start losing, the ACC would react to the unexpected outcome. And, most importantly, you would realize something's not right, learn from the outcome, and potentially adjust your behavior.

Through the course of the study, Hyman also discovered a correlation betweeen feedback-related negativity in in both human and rodent models.

"It took as few as two consecutive unexpected events for cells to change and start making the opposite prediction," Hyman said. The testing mirrored what has been done in humans and opens the possibility that findings from rodent models can contribute to our understanding of the ACC function in humans.

Additional research on the ACC could lead to new solutions to assist in the cognitive control problems that are associated with a host of psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and drug addiction.

According to Hyman, this discovery will help in further understanding our ability to detect the situations where we have the most learning. "Understanding those mechanics could make us learn faster," he said.

"A Novel Neural Prediction Error Found in Anterior Cingulate Cortex Ensembles" appeared in the July issue of the journal Neuron (Vol. 95, issue 2).

Explore further: Scientists find link between cognitive fatigue and effort and reward

More information: James Michael Hyman et al. A Novel Neural Prediction Error Found in Anterior Cingulate Cortex Ensembles, Neuron (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.06.021

Related Stories

Scientists find link between cognitive fatigue and effort and reward

September 5, 2017
Kessler Foundation researchers have authored a new article that has implications for our understanding of the relationship between cognitive fatigue and effort and reward. The study, which was conducted in healthy participants, ...

Study measures bias in how we learn and make decisions

April 26, 2016
Thinking about drawing to an inside straight or playing another longshot? Just remember that while human decision-making is biased by potential rewards, what we know about individual cues that help us to make those decisions ...

Area of the brain affected by autism detected

April 3, 2017
Brain researchers at ETH Zurich and other universities have shown for the first time that a region of the brain associated with empathy only activates very weakly in autistic people. This knowledge could help to develop new ...

Cocaine users have impaired ability to predict loss

February 3, 2015
Cocaine addicted individuals may continue their habit despite unfavorable consequences like imprisonment or loss of relationships because their brain circuits responsible for predicting emotional loss are impaired, according ...

Researchers listen to birdsong, unlock mysteries of brain

July 31, 2017
The term "birdbrain" has been part of our lexicon for about a century to describe someone's intellect, or lack of it, presumably because birds have really small brains. But, in fact, the way songbirds learn to sing is similar ...

Study illustrates how the cortex assigns credit for causality

June 28, 2017
When you do something right, you can't learn anything from your success without a system in the brain for assigning credit to whatever action led to the desired outcome.

Recommended for you

Study of protein 'trafficker' provides insight into autism and other brain disorders

September 22, 2018
In the brain, as in business, connections are everything. To maintain cellular associates, the outer surface of a neuron, its membrane, must express particular proteins—proverbial hands that reach out and greet nearby cells. ...

Breast milk may be best for premature babies' brain development

September 21, 2018
Babies born before their due date show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula, a study has found.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

White matter repair and traumatic brain injury

September 20, 2018
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., contributing to about 30 percent of all injury deaths, according to the CDC. TBI causes damage to both white and gray matter in the brain, ...

Gut branches of vagus nerve essential components of brain's reward and motivation system

September 20, 2018
A novel gut-to-brain neural circuit establishes the vagus nerve as an essential component of the brain system that regulates reward and motivation, according to research conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount ...

Genomic dark matter activity connects Parkinson's and psychiatric diseases

September 20, 2018
Dopamine neurons are located in the midbrain, but their tendril-like axons can branch far into the higher cortical areas, influencing how we move and how we feel. New genetic evidence has revealed that these specialized cells ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 25, 2017
"Same thing we do every night, Pinky...try to take over the World!"

Hyman diligently forced his way into making a breakthrough!

No, wait..that came out wrong....

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.