Neurobiologists have known that a novel environment sparks exploration and learning, but very little is known about whether the brain really prefers novelty as such. Rather, the major "novelty center" of the brain--called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA)--might be activated by the unexpectedness of a stimulus, the emotional arousal it causes, or the need to respond behaviorally. The SN/VTA exerts a major influence on learning because it is functionally linked to both the hippocampus, which is the brain's learning center, and the amygdala, the center for processing emotional information.
Now, researchers Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Dzel report studies with humans showing that the SN/VTA does respond to novelty as such and this novelty motivates the brain to explore, seeking a reward. The researchers of University College London and Otto von Guericke University reported their findings in the August 3, 2006, issue of Neuron, published by Cell Press.
In their experiments, Bunzeck and Dzel used what is known as an "oddball" experimental paradigm to study how novel images activate the SN/VTA of volunteer subjects' brains. In this method--as the subject's brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging--they were shown a series of images of the same face or outdoor scene. However, the researchers randomly intermixed in this series four types of different, or "oddball," faces or scenes. One oddball was simply a different neutral image, one was a different image that required the researchers to press a button, one was an emotional image, and one was a distinctly novel image. In fMRI, harmless radio signals and magnetic fields are used to measure blood flow in brain regions, which reflects activity in those regions.
With this experimental design, the researchers could compare the subjects' response to the different kinds of oddball images to distinguish the brain's reaction to pure novelty itself from the other p
Contact: Heidi Hardman