What 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.