If we can learn to control the motivational centres of our brains, will it lead us toward healthier, more productive lives?
Using a new brain imaging strategy, Duke University scientists have now taken a first step in understanding how to manipulate specific neural circuits using thoughts and imagery.
The technique is part of a larger approach called “neurofeedback” which gives participants a dynamic readout of brain activity – in this case from a brain area critical for motivation.
“These methods show a direct route for manipulating brain networks centrally involved in healthy brain function and daily behaviour,” said study’s senior investigator R Alison Adcock, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
“Neurofeedback” is a specialised form of biofeedback – a technique that allows people to monitor aspects of their own physiology, such as heart rate and skin temperature.
It can help generate strategies to overcome anxiety and stress or to cope with other medical conditions.
The new study focused on dopamine, a neurochemical well known for its role in motivation, experiencing rewards, learning and memory, which is found in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the brain.
According to Adcock’s previous research, when people are given incentives to remember specific images, an increase in VTA activation before the image appears predicts whether the participants are going to successfully remember the image.
In the new study, the team encouraged participants in the scanner to generate feelings of motivation — using their own personal strategies — during 20-second intervals.
When the scientists provided participants with neurofeedback from the VTA, participants were able to learn which strategies worked, and ultimately adopt more effective strategies.
Compared to control groups, the neurofeedback-trained participants successfully elevated their VTA activity.
“Because this is the first demonstration of its kind, there is much still to be understood. But these tools could offer benefits for everyone, particularly those with depression or attention problems,” said Adcock in a paper described in the journal Neuron,
The neurofeedback training also activated other regions involved in learning and experiencing rewards, confirming that at least in the short term, the brain changes its activity more broadly as a result of neurofeedback.
The team plans to conduct the same study in participants with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).