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Brain region learns to anticipate risk, provides early warnings. suggests new study in Science

Following the Asian tsunami, scientists struggled to explain reports that primitive aboriginal tribesmen had somehow sensed the impending danger in time to join wild animals in a life-saving flight to higher ground.

While some scientists discount the existence of a sixth sense for danger, new research from Washington University in St. Louis has identified a brain region that clearly acts as an early warning system -- one that monitors environmental cues, weighs possible consequences and helps us adjust our behavior to avoid dangerous situations.

"Our brains are better at picking up subtle warning signs than we previously thought," said Joshua Brown, Ph.D., a research associate in psychology in Arts & Sciences and co-author of a study on these findings in the Feb. 18 issue of the journal Science.

The findings offer rigorous scientific evidence for a new way of conceptualizing the complex executive control processes taking place in and around the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain area located near the top of the frontal lobes and along the walls that divide the left and right hemispheres.

"In the past, we found activity in the ACC when people had to make a difficult decision among mutually exclusive options, or after they made a mistake," Brown said. "But now we find that this brain region can actually learn to recognize when you might make a mistake, even before a difficult decision has to be made. So the ACC appears to act as an early warning system -- it learns to warn us in advance when our behavior might lead to a negative outcome, so that we can be more careful and avoid making a mistake."

Implications for mental illness

The ACC has been the focus of intensive scientific research in recent years because it plays a critical role in the brain's processing of especially complex and challenging cognitive tasks. Abnormalities in the region are closely associated with a host of serious mental problem
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Contact: Gerry Everding
gerry_everding@wustl.edu
314-935-6375
Washington University in St. Louis
17-Feb-2005


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