PITT Researchers Demonstrate Human Brain's Natural Mechanism For Guarding Against Errors

PITTSBURGH, April 30 -- Using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor subjects' brain activity during tasks, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have shown that the brain is able to anticipate situations in which errors are likely to occur so that it may guard against them before they happen. The results of their study are to be published in Friday's edition of Science.

"Our research shows the brain has its own built-in system for detecting competition between two possible yet incompatible responses to a situation," explained Cameron S. Carter, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and psychology. "When this system detects the conflict, it provides a signal that the brain may use to pay more attention and avoid the error."

The specific area of the brain linked to error-checking is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is located on the inner surface of the frontal lobes, in the middle of the front part of the brain.

In the Pitt study, researchers used event-related fMRI to look into the brains of 13 people while they performed variants of the Continuous Performance Test designed both to increase error rates and to manipulate competition between possible responses. Event-related fMRI is a new imaging method that allows researchers to acquire images on a trial-by-trial basis during mental tasks. One such test consisted of subjects watching a series of numbers and looking for a specified target -- an "X" immediately following an "A" -- and pressing one of two buttons. A button on the left was pressed each time the target appeared and one on the right for every other combination. Dr. Carter and his colleagues noted a transient increase in ACC activity during incorrect responses, a reaction that had been seen previously in studies of brain electrical activity and attributed to the ACC. However, they also found that the

Contact: Craig Dunhoff
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

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