Brain News: Researchers have identified the brain regions that are involved in the choice of whether or not a bad event is likely to occur.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has identified the specific areas and cells of the brain that become active when a person is faced with the choice of learning or hiding from information about unwanted and aversive events that the individual likely has no power to prevent. The study findings published in Neuron, could shed light on the processes underlying anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other psychiatric conditions.
“People’s brains aren’t well equipped to deal with the information age,” said senior author Ilya Monosov, PhD. People scroll endlessly on bad news on social media and news apps. They keep checking them and some of that checking is totally unhelpful. This behaviour somehow seem to affect our brain circuits that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive in an uncertain and ever-changing world.
In 2019, studying monkeys, Monosov laboratory members identified two brain regions involved in tracking uncertainty about positively anticipated events such as rewards. However, it was unclear whether the same circuits were involved in seeking information about negatively anticipated events. To find that, first author Ahmad Jezzini, PhD, and Monosov taught two monkeys to recognize when something bad might be headed their way.
The monkeys first were shown one symbol that told them a puff might be coming but with varying degrees of certainty. A few seconds after the first symbol was shown, a second symbol was shown that resolved the animals’ uncertainty. It told the monkeys that the puff was definitely coming, or it wasn’t. The researchers measured whether the animals wanted to know what was going to happen by whether they watched for the second signal or averted their eyes or, in separate experiments, letting the monkeys choose among different symbols and their outcomes.
By precisely measuring neural activity in the brain while the monkeys were faced with these choices, the researchers identified one brain area, the anterior cingulate cortex, that encodes information about attitudes toward good and bad possibilities separately. The second brain area, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, contains individual cells whose activity reflects the monkeys’ overall attitudes: yes for info on either good or bad possibilities vs. yes for intel on good possibilities only.
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Jezzini, A., Bromberg-Martin, E. S., Trambaiolli, L. R., Haber, S. N., & Monosov, I. E. (2021). A prefrontal network integrates preferences for advance information about uncertain rewards and punishments. Neuron. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2021.05.013