Scientists Mess around with Brain to Change ‘Bad’ Habits

Those suffering from addiction and mental disorders that come with unbalanced habitual behaviors may have new hope for disrupting those unwanted habits. Maybe. One day. Possibly.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pinpointed the area of the brain responsible for such habitual behaviors and have found a way to stop those behaviors. Granted, the study involved an invasive laser procedure that messed with the prefrontal region of the brain where habits are formed and expressed, but so far the disruption of this area resulted in the rats breaking old habits, forming new ones, and going back to old ones when the brain was so tweaked to do so.

Two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were behind the study, which trained rats to follow a specific turn in a maze to find a reward of chocolate milk. Once the habit of turning toward the chocolate milk was ingrained in the rats, the researchers paired the milk with the nausea-inducing lithium chloride.

The rats still turned toward the chocolate milk, following the habit that had become second nature.

To determine whether the habit could be broken, the researchers then applied a technique known as optogenetics—in which a laser light is delivered to brain cells through optical fibers—to see if they could manipulate a specific region of the rats’ prefrontal cortex known as the infralimbic (IL) cortex. When the laser was turned on and the IL cortex was disrupted, the rats nearly instantaneously stopped running habitually toward the chocolate milk reward. Instead, they appeared to act more thoughtfully, running toward the other side (of the maze).

Read more at the National Institute of Mental Health website:

Info on the study: Smith K, Virkud A, Deisseroth K, Graybiel A. Reversible online control of habitual behavior by optogenetic perturbation of media prefrontal cortex. PNAS. Nov 13, 2012. 109(46):18932-18937.