Train the Motivation Center in the Brain

mWhat biofeedback was to the 1970’s, neurofeedback could be to the 2020’s. Neurofeedback is a diverse and fascinating area of research that combines neuroscience and technology to monitor and modulate brain activity in real time.

Recently, Adcock Lab at Duke University studied to see if people could train themselves to increase brain activity in a tiny region of the brain called the VTA. The VTA is thought to be involved in motivation—the desire to get something that you want. For example, if you believed that by buying a lottery ticket you would be guaranteed to win $1,000,000, you would probably be very motivated to buy the ticket and would have a spike in brain activity in this region of your brain. But while studies have shown that motivation for external rewards (like money) activate the VTA, until now, we didn’t know whether people could internally generate a motivational state that would activate this brain region.

To see if people could self-activate their  VTA,  the study used neurofeedback, which provides information on a person’s brain activity milliseconds to seconds after it happens. Neurofeedback can use either an EEG machine, which records the electrical activity of the brain and is very fast, but not very specific, or it can use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which records changes in blood flow in the brain and can better target specific brain regions, but is slower. Studies on rtfMRI (the rt stands for “real-time”), have found that giving people feedback on their brain activity might be able to help them to control that activity.

The study’s purpose was to use the technology to better understand the functioning of the VTA and its relationship with internally generated motivation, with potential for clinical applications down the road. The premise is – if people could learn to activate their VTAs deliberately, it could have important clinical applications, like helping someone stick to a diet, helping with psychological disorders or chronic pain.

Participants were placed in one of four groups. All four groups started out by getting in the scanner and trying to activate their brains using their own motivation strategies (for example, winning a race) , but first without receiving any feedback. After doing this for several minutes, people in the first group  would try again, but this time would see a thermometer on the computer screen in front of them. When activity in the VTA went up, the bar on the thermometer would rise. When activity in the VTA went down, the thermometer would drop. The other groups either got feedback from a different brain region, got fake feedback, or were shown a visual distraction. These groups were used as comparisons to ensure that it really was the signal from the VTA that was being registered in the neurofeedback group.

The results were published recently in the journal Neuron. It turns out that the strategies people tried initially did not activate their VTAs very much.  In other words, what people thought of as motivating did not match up with activity in what we consider to be the “motivation center” of the brain. How could that be? One possible explanation is that it can be difficult to get a sense of just how motivated we are to do something. Consider times when you might have thought you were highly motivated (“I know I am going to stick to my diet/exercise regimen this year”), and didn’t follow through. Another interpretation is that while we might have some sense of how motivated we are in a given moment, our subjective perceptions might not translate to VTA activation. That’s where the feedback (the rising/falling thermometer visual) came in.

The study did find that people were better able to activate their VTAs, on average, once they got neurofeedback compared to people who got false feedback or no feedback. And the learning stuck—once people knew the strategies that worked for them, they were effective even once the feedback was taken away. Overall, different strategies worked for different people and some people in the control groups were still able to activate their VTAs even without the neurofeedback. The take-home message is that there is still a lot to learn.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is: What could result from an ability to better activate one’s VTA? One possibility is that internally generated VTA activation could allow people to have the extra oomph to better meet their goals. So maybe when you need to do errands, but are really not in the mood, you  might think about winning a race and it will give you the drive to go to the grocery store. For others, enhanced VTA activation might be able to help with studying. After all, studies have found VTA activation associated with better memory performance. And given other studies showing VTA signaling being related to eating and mood, it’s possible that it could help people with eating disorders or depression. Time will tell whether this method will be useful clinically, it can be a lot of fun getting to know your brain—and it seems that having fun is one of the keys to activating your VTA.

Bored to Death

boringMany of us are familiar with the old expression, “bored to death,” and usually take it as nothing more than hyperbole. However, a new study has shown that this is more than an overreaction, and an actual possibility. The Mind Scientific American July edition reports that a recent British study examined data collected from civil servants for self reported boredom, and several cardiac risk factors. They were first assessed in the 1970’s looking at different factors, including job satisfaction and boredom. In a follow up in 2010 they found that people were being bored to death. Certainly there were a number of factors that played into these findings such as poor physical fitness, unhealthy diet, and financial stress, but this isn’t the first time that boredom has been linked with undesirable mental and physical conditions.

As parents we have all been told by our children that “this is boring”, or “I’m bored,” and thought nothing of it. Even as students, we have sat in lectures that went on and on and on, and as adults most of us have had that dinner date where we just drum our fingers on our knee quietly and skip dessert. Sometimes boredom may arise from not fully engaging with ones surroundings. Some research suggests that we disengage because of a lapse in focus, meaning the frontal cortex of the brain is out of balance. Recent research suggests that chronic boredom is often linked to depression and often manifests in one of two ways, which are apathetic or agitated boredom. While these are polar reactions, most of us are somewhere in between the two. Boredom is associated with a lack of motivation, and a lack of internal or external stimulation. Think about this, when do you get bored? And more importantly how do you deal with the boredom?

Another thing to consider, is boredom being caused by an external factor, such as brain injury, as many people who have suffered from a brain injury report high levels of boredom. People who have had an intense blow to the head often demonstrate impulsive, risk taking behavior. It is therefore possible to see the correlation as the chronically bored are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, drive recklessly, and practice unsafe sex. The brain region most commonly damaged in a head injury is the orbitofrontal cortex, the region that is responsible for associating events, actions, and decisions with the cognitive and emotional actions. The frontal lobes are also the last part of the brain to develop, and recent research shows that the frontal lobes are not fully developed to the late twenties. So while boredom might not be listed a person’s cause of death on the reports, an idle and restless mind can play a part in risk taking or destructive behavior.

Boredom is more complex that we think. I use to tell my kids, “Only boring people get bored.” Nothing could be further from the truth. To learn more about where the truth lies read the full article that offers many resources for further reading.