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How the brain helps us cope with change and make the right decisions

Are there any particular structures in the brain that help us cope with change and make the right choices in fast moving circumstances? It appears as though there is, if a new study by Stan Floresco at the Brain Research Centre, University of British Columbia, is anything to go by.

The study brings to light brain circuits that help us make our choices in changing circumstances by interacting with one another. The results were presented at the 8th annual Canadian Neuroscience Meeting, May 25-28 2014 in Montreal, Canada.

The studies conducted by Dr. Floresco showed that areas deep inside goad us on to reach for large, but uncertain rewards. Brain regions in the more advanced frontal lobes, however, regulate and temper these urges in circumstances that indicate that the riskier options are not worth taking. “The study shows that the more primitive regions of the brain may be responsible for our urge to go for larger rewards. However, the frontal lobes, which are able to take a longer-term view of any situation, drive back these urges when the larger reward may not be the most profitable in the long term”, explains Dr. Floresco.

In a related study published by Dr. Floresco, dopamine neurons are shown to provide the brain with short-term performance updates of recent decisions, which influences the direction of subsequent decisions. The scientist also authored a paper recently, which underlined the importance of another brain region, called the lateral habenula, in decision making. “When we switched off neural activity within this region, decision-making patterns in animals became random, suggesting that it plays a key role in giving a clear direction to decisions.”

These results show that there is dynamic competition among signals originating from different brain regions. Integrating these signals and making choices appropriate to different circumstances involves an ability to react differently and update behaviour, or, cognitive flexibility.

Understanding these signals and how they are transmitted and act in the normal brain can help explain many neuropsychiatric conditions like schizophrenia in which this signalling is defective.

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