Neurons that play truth or consequences

The "CEO" in your brain appears to be concerned more about the consequences of your actions than how hard they are to produce.

That is the implication of a detailed study of the neuronal activity in a critical area of the brain, called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), published in the Oct. 3 issue of the journal Science. It is the latest in a series of experiments that are beginning to lift the veil on the brain's "executive function" how it monitors its own performance so that it can regulate behavior. Many cognitive scientists feel that the ACC may be at the heart of this higher order system.

Researchers found the ACC responds to discrepancies between a person's intentions and what actually occurs when actions are performed, providing new support for one popular theory on its function. But they did not find evidence of neural activity in the ACC when the brain is forced to change course in mid-action, as predicted by another popular theory.

"The broad question is, 'How does the brain monitor and control intentional actions.' Our research indicates that it does so by monitoring the consequences of such actions, not the actions themselves," says Jeffrey Schall, Ingram Professor of Neuroscience and director of Vanderbilt's Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience. He directed the study with doctoral student Shigehiko Ito, post-doctoral fellow Veit Stuphorn, and Joshua Brown, a research associate at Washington University.

Brown adds that "the ACC isn't the only part of the brain that processes these kinds of signals. But this finding is important because the ACC plays a key role in disorders such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder in humans. Other research here at Washington University suggests how the ACC uses these signals to help people control their actions."

The researchers investigated the ACC through detailed studies measuring the response of hundreds of individual neurons in th

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Vanderbilt University

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