New neuroscience research shows area of brain involved with deciding whether to continue a behavior

Image Courtesy of CC0 Public Domain

Image Courtesy of CC0 Public Domain

Denny Mathew, Staff Writer

Life is full of decision-making. What to wear, what to eat, when to go to work; these all lie under the faith in our habits, but we can change these decisions at any given moment. As we sort out all the questions, planning, and executing, which area of our brain is handling all of this? Luckily, new research gives us an inside look into the neuroscience of this decision-making process. 

A French research team has cultivated new research on a specific area in the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, or mPFC. mPFC is involved when the brain is deciding whether to continue exhibiting certain behavior or to reroute and start something new. The team published their findings in the journal Science, describing their study of brains in epileptic patients and what they learned from them.

Saurabh Steixner-Kumar and Jan Gläscher with University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf have published a Perspective piece in the Science journal outlining the work by the team.

Prior to this new research, it is found that in stable environments, humans are more likely to do activities of their highest benefit. In unstable environments, however, humans manifested difficult decisions, where change forces them out of their initial course of action. This change in behavior often occurs right away. This nearly instantaneous decision making occurs in the mPFC. With this knowledge, the French researchers sought to learn which regions of the mPFC carry out the functions involved in such decision making.

The research itself entails the use of deeply planted electrodes in epileptic patients while they engaged in decision-making activities. The emissions from these electrodes were recorded and analyzed to study their effects. Researchers observed which parts of the mPFC were active during each phase of decision-making and were able to isolate some of the processes. One part that was observed was the ventral mPFC; involved in testing the reliability of the actions the patients were taking—which then sent signals to other parts of the mPFC indicating the degree of confidence in what was happening. Also, when another region in the mPFC, called the dorsal mPFC, received those signals, it evaluated outcomes for other action plans and proposed a behavioral strategy.

This new research shows that just a fraction of our brain is held responsible for each decision we process and put out into the world. Next time, when you’re going through a difficult decision, make sure to thank your medial prefrontal cortex!