Revealing the wiring that allows us to adapt to the unexpected

Jan 31, 2011

Wouldn't life be easy if everything happened as we anticipated? In reality, our brains are able to adapt to the unexpected using an inbuilt network that makes predictions about the world and monitors how those predictions turn out. An area at the front of the brain, called the orbitofrontal cortex, plays a central role and studies have shown that patients with damage to this area confuse memories with reality and continue to anticipate events that are no longer likely to happen.

The brain's ability to react adaptively, becomes crucial for survival, when faced with potential dangers, such as snakes and spiders, so to what extent does the harmfulness of an anticipated outcome affect our brain's event monitoring system? Not at all, reveals a new study published in the February 2011 issue of Elsevier's Cortex: the processes are the same, regardless how scary the anticipated event.

The team of researchers, supervised by Prof. Armin Schnider of the University Hospitals of Geneva in Switzerland, recorded functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) while healthy volunteers performed a task in which they repeatedly saw a pair of faces and had to predict on which face a target was about to appear. The target could be a simple black disk (neutral stimulus) or a spider (potentially harmful stimulus). The researchers found a strong activation of the brain's visual areas whenever the spider appeared. However, irrespective of whether the disk or the spider was the target, its unexpected absence activated a cerebral network including the orbitofrontal cortex.

The findings show that, while the potential harmfulness of an event strongly affects , it does not influence the way the brain reacts when the expected event does not occur. The study supports the notion that the is "at the centre of a specific cerebral network which functions as a generic outcome monitoring system," says Louis Nahum, the first author of the study. "This capacity is probably as old in evolution as the instinctive reaction to threatening stimuli; its failure deprives the of the ability to remain in phase with reality," notes Armin Schnider.

Explore further: Know the brain, and its axons, by the clothes they wear

More information: The article is "Neural response to the behaviorally relevant absence of anticipated outcomes and the presentation of potentially harmful stimuli: A human fMRI study" by Louis Nahum, Stéphane R. Simon, David Sander, François Lazeyras, and Armin Schnider, and appears in Cortex, Volume 47, Issue 2 (February 2010)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Specific brain areas for sex, money

Oct 01, 2010

A team of French researchers headed by Jean-Claude Dreher of the Centre de Neuroscience Cognitive in Lyon, France, has provided the first evidence that the orbitofrontal cortex (located in the anterior ventral ...

Brain activity linked to the parental instinct

Feb 27, 2008

Why do we almost instinctively treat babies as special, protecting them and enabling them to survive? Darwin originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them ...

Picower research finds unexpected activity in visual cortex

Mar 16, 2006

For years, neural activity in the brain's visual cortex was thought to have only one job: to create visual perceptions. A new study by researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory shows that visual cortical ...

Study shows how 'horse tranquiliser' stops depression

May 02, 2008

Researchers have shown exactly how the anaesthetic ketamine helps depression with images that show the orbitofrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is overactive in depression – being ‘switched off’.

Recommended for you

Know the brain, and its axons, by the clothes they wear

Apr 18, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—It is widely know that the grey matter of the brain is grey because it is dense with cell bodies and capillaries. The white matter is almost entirely composed of lipid-based myelin, but ...

Turning off depression in the brain

Apr 17, 2014

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Rapid whole-brain imaging with single cell resolution

Apr 17, 2014

A major challenge of systems biology is understanding how phenomena at the cellular scale correlate with activity at the organism level. A concerted effort has been made especially in the brain, as scientists are aiming to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cancer stem cells linked to drug resistance

Most drugs used to treat lung, breast and pancreatic cancers also promote drug-resistance and ultimately spur tumor growth. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have discovered ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.