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Insight into the processes of 'positive' and 'negative' learners

Deciphering the subtle, complex electrical signals emanating from the brain has yielded important insights into the still-mysterious neural mechanisms that underlie behavior. By recording a subject's faint brain signals via arrays of scalp electrodes during cognitive tasks, researchers can extract "event-related potentials" (ERPs) that enable them to pinpoint with great accuracy when the brain reacts to components of the tasks.

One such intriguing ERP signal, called "error-related negativity" (ERN), is associated with activity in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is known to be activated during demanding cognitive tasks, and ERNs are typically more negative after participants make incorrect responses compared to correct choices. Researchers believe that the ERN reflects an abrupt dip in signaling between neurons that depend on the neurotransmitter dopamine. A key question, though, has been exactly what kind of processing ERNs reflect in the ACC. While one theory holds that ERNs reflect a mechanism by which the brain detects errors in decisions, another holds that it reflects the processing of conflicts, of which errors are just one case.

In an article in the August 18, 2005, issue of Neuron, researchers led by Michael J. Frank and colleagues at University of Colorado at Boulder offer new insight into the neural computational function represented by ERNs. They explored the processing underlying ERNs by wiring volunteers with scalp electrodes and measuring ERNs while the subjects were asked to pick between pairs of Japanese characters on a video screen. They used Japanese characters as symbols that would be meaningless to the volunteers and that could be randomly imbued by the researchers as being either a "correct" or "incorrect" choice. When asked to choose one symbol or the other, the correct choice was indicated by a smiley face and an incorrect choice by a red crossout symbol.

Thus, the researchers could prec
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Contact: Heidi Hardman
hhardman@cell.com
1-617-397-2879
Cell Press
17-Aug-2005


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