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Brain Health

Brain Tune-Up May Aid Self-Motivation

At our best, we motivate ourselves every day to get dressed and go to work or school. Although there are larger incentives at work, it’s our own volition that powers us through our innumerable daily tasks.

If we could learn to control the motivational centers of our brains that drive volition, would 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 findings appear in the March 16th 2016 issue of the journal Neuron

Accordingto a release from Duke, 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.

The release quotes the study’s senior investigator R. Alison Adcock, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience in the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences, as saying, “These methods show a direct route for manipulating brain networks centrally involved in healthy brain function and daily behavior.”

Neurofeedback is a specialized 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.

Neurofeedback has historically relied on electroencephalography or EEG, in which patterns of electrical activity are monitored noninvasively by electrodes attached to the scalp. But these measures provide only rough estimates of where activity occurs in the brain.

In contrast, the new study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures changes in blood oxygen levels, allowing more precisely localized measurements of brain activity.

Adcock’s team has been working on ways to use thoughts and behavior to tune brain function for the past eight years. In this time, they’ve developed tools allowing them to analyze complex brain imaging data in real time and to display it to participants as neurofeedback while they are in the fMRI scanner.

This study focused on the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a small area deep within the brain that is a major source of dopamine, a neurochemical well known for its role in motivation, experiencing rewards, learning, and memory.

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.

External incentives like money work well to stimulate the VTA, but it was unclear whether people could exercise this area on their own, said co-author Jeff MacInnes, a postdoctoral researcher in Adcock’s lab.

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