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Brain signal boosts as monkey nears reward

Delaying gratification while working toward a goal appears to have roots in a specific brain circuit. NIMH scientists have discovered a signal in a brain area involved in motivation that strengthens as a monkey performs a task for which it has been trained to expect a reward.

Munetaka Shidara, Ph.D, and Barry Richmond, M.D., NIMH Laboratory of Neuropsychology, trained monkeys to release a lever when a spot on a computer screen turned from red to green. The animals knew they had performed the task correctly when the spot turned blue. A visual cue -- a gray bar on the screen -- got brighter as they progressed through a succession of trials required to get a juice treat. Though never punished, the monkeys couldnt graduate to the next level until they had successfully completed the current trial.

The brain signal boost occurred as the monkey worked harder and more accurately as the reward neared. Emanating from a reward-anticipating circuit in the front top center of the brain, the signal is thought to sustain the goal-driven behavior and then shuts off when the reward is assured. Signal alterations may underlie abnormal activity detected in the brain area, the anterior cingulate cortex, in disorders of motivation and reward expectation, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), propose the researchers. They report on their findings in the May 30 Science.

If youre working toward a distant goal, you must often keep working even if you dont like what you are doing very much, explained Richmond. It makes sense that there is such a signal that varies with degree of reward expectancy that keeps you on-task performing a long sequence of behaviors. What were studying in a rather cartoon-like way with this task are the dynamics of this situation: the ongoing tension between the desirability of reaching the goal and the hard work needed to achieve it.

As the monkeys approached their reward, they made progressively fewer errors, with
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Contact: Jules Asher
NIMHpress@nih.gov
301-443-4536
NIH/National Institute of Mental Health
30-May-2002


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