Interesting correlations between 2 studies on behaviour and neural processes

I read this story on “Near misses” by Jonah Lehrer last night – it deals with the brain’s desire to figure out a pattern and the chemical (dopamine)process that accompanies the moment of insight ( and also triggered in scenarios of close failure) and this explains gambling addiction). Here’s an extract: 

Henry Chase and Luke Clark of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in Cambridge have previously found that the brain responds to near miss gambling outcomes in much the same way it does to as winning. In moderate gamblers, both types of outcome activate the reward circuitry, and although near miss events are experienced to be somewhat less rewarding than wins, they nevertheless increase the desire and motivation to gamble. For games involving skill, near misses indicate an improvement in performance and spur the player to try again. But gambling is a game of chance, which distorts gamblers’ thought processes – near misses cause them gambler to overestimate both the level of skill involved and their chances of winning. This spurs them to continue gambling.

The new study extends these earlier observations to regular gamblers, with the aim of establishing whether or not the response to near misses is related to gambling severity. Chase and Clark recruited 24 regular gamblers, The participants were asked to perform a computerized gambling task while their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Two slot machine reels, each with the same six playing icons, were presented to the participants on the screen inside the scanner. In one condition, they were required to select an icon on the left reel and then spin the right reel. In another, the icon was randomly selected for them by a computer. If the icons matched after the reels stopped spinning, they were rewarded with a small amount of money.

After collecting the fMRI data, the researchers focused on the midbrain, which contains neurons that signal reward by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. They again found that near misses activate the reward circuits, confirming the results of their previous study. Significantly, they also found that gambling severity, as measured prior to scanning by the South Oaks Gambling Screen, could predict the midbrain’s response to a near miss. The more severe a participant’s gambling habit, the stronger was the midbrain response to a near miss. In other words, near misses were most rewarding for the pathological gamblers, who experienced them as being almost as rewarding as a win. The participants who gambled less severely also found near misses rewarding, but to a lesser extent.

Then, this morning I read the article below on the sudden transitions in neural states as subjects try and figure out the patterns applicable in new scenarios by trial and error, leading to sudden insights.

To my untrained non-scientific brain ….there appears to be a link. How could these two pieces of information be tested together to figure out a way to accelerate underlying behaviour change?

Am I making sense?  Who knows about this stuff? 

Eureka! Neural evidence for sudden insight (5/13/2010)

A recent study provides intriguing information about the neural dynamics underlying behavioral changes associated with the development of new problem solving strategies. The research, published by the Cell Press in the May 13 issue of the journal Neuron, supports the idea of “a-ha” moments in the brain that are associated with sudden insight.

Our daily lives are filled with changes that force us to abandon old behavioral strategies that are no longer advantageous and develop new, more appropriate responses. While it is clear that new rules are often deduced through trial-and-error learning, the neural dynamics that underlie the change from a familiar to a novel rule are not well understood.

“The ability of animals and humans to infer and apply new rules in order to maximize reward relies critically on the frontal lobes,” explains one of the researchers who led the study, Dr. Jeremy K. Seamans from the Brain Research Centre at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. “In our study, we examined how groups of frontal cortex neurons in rat brains switch from encoding a familiar rule to a completely novel rule that could only be deduced through trial and error.”

Specifically, Dr. Seamans with colleagues from UBC and collaborator Dr. Daniel Durstewitz from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany were interested in determining whether networks of neurons change their activity in a slow gradual way as an old strategy is abandoned and a new one is learned or whether there is a more abrupt transition.

Using sophisticated statistical techniques to study ensembles of neurons in the medial frontal cortex on a trial-by-trial basis as rats deduced a novel rule in a specially designed task, they found that the same populations of neurons formed unique network states that corresponded to familiar and novel rules. Interestingly, although it took many trials for the animals to figure out the new rule, the recorded ensembles did not change gradually but instead exhibited a rather abrupt transition to a new pattern that corresponded directly to the shift in behavior, as if the network had experienced an “a-ha” moment.

Taken together, these findings provide concrete support for sudden transitions between neural states rather than slow, gradual changes. “In the present problem solving context where the animal had to infer a new rule by accumulating evidence through trial and error, such sudden neural and behavioral transitions may correspond to moments of ‘sudden insight,'” concludes Dr. Durstewitz.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the Cell Press 


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Brainwave 2010- the cosmic orgasmic event of the year!


Brainwave 2010

The third annual BRAINWAVE brings thinkers from multiple disciplines to sit down with scientists to wrap our minds around the things that matter.

See the Brainwave 2010 brochure (2.5mb)

If like me, you are a real junkie for stimulation of the neural kind, then this sort of event is surely where multiple mental orgasms will be happening! I can’t get there (live in Sydney and just got back from NYC)- but if you live in New York, wont you please go and share it with the rest of us so we can come vicariously?