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Decoding Brain Function: Shedding Light On the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Its Ties to Learning

Summary: Researchers from UNLV shed light on the role the ACC plays in guiding response and adaption to surprise outcomes.

Source: UNLV.

If there’s a final frontier in understanding the human body, it’s definitely not the pinky. It’s the brain.

After four years of lab testing and complex neuro-decoding, a research team led by UNLV psychology professor James Hyman has struck a major breakthrough that could open the floodgates for research into the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, and how human brains learn.

The research, published this summer in the neuroscience journal Neuron, offers new insight into the ACC’s role in guiding the brain’s response and adaptation to unexpected outcomes. The study also showed the first cellular correlates of the extensively studied human phenomena known as feedback negativity. Hyman had previously found in 2015 conclusive evidence that the ACC in rodent brains reacts in the same manner as in humans to reward probability and outcome expectancy.

The study garnered a special preview article in the journal from Bruno Averbeck, a leading expert in the field from the National Institutes of Health.

The function of the brain’s ACC is heavily studied, but many scientists believe it contributes to behavioral adaptation, detection of conflict and responding to and managing emotional reactions.

According to Hyman, the ACC essentially creates expectations about what’s going to happen. Then, when the result of our actions leads to an outcome, our brain assesses whether that outcome was the same as what we expected. The ACC is integrally involved in this process. If the outcome is not what we expected, the ACC reacts with a larger electrical charge – known as feedback negativity – than if the outcome was expected.

The research team showed that when an expected outcome was not delivered, a neural signal in the brain’s ACC was detected. This signal offers clues to the cellular origin of feedback negativity, and that the phenomenon may be generated as the neurons in the ACC shift from encoding expected to actual outcomes.

Our brains are constantly doing this, Hyman said.

“Generally, the ACC always has a negative electrical change to outcomes, it’s just the size of this change varies by whether the outcome was the expected one or not and whether it was better or worse than expected,” said Hyman. “Every single thing we do involves making predictions about what’s going to happen next. Usually facile little things, such as opening an unlocked door,” Hyman said.

For instance, if you go to open what you believe to be an unlocked door by its handle, your ACC is predicting the outcome that the door will open and you will walk in. If the door handle is locked and it does not open as predicted, an electrical reaction occurs that is readable. The ACC will then learn from the unexpected outcome of its initial prediction.

Image shows the location of the ACC in the brain.

The function of the brain’s ACC is heavily studied, but many scientists believe it contributes to behavioral adaptation, detection of conflict and responding to and managing emotional reactions. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

Now imagine you were playing a slot machine with a 75 percent chance of winning (we’re pretending here). If the percentage was changed without you knowing to 25 percent, your ACC would still predict a positive outcome. When you start losing, the ACC would react to the unexpected outcome. And, most importantly, you would realize something’s not right, learn from the outcome, and potentially adjust your behavior.

Through the course of the study, Hyman also discovered a correlation betweeen feedback-related negativity in in both human and rodent models.

“It took as few as two consecutive unexpected events for cells to change and start making the opposite prediction,” Hyman said. The testing mirrored what has been done in humans and opens the possibility that findings from rodent models can contribute to our understanding of the ACC function in humans.

Additional research on the ACC could lead to new solutions to assist in the cognitive control problems that are associated with a host of psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and drug addiction.

According to Hyman, this discovery will help in further understanding our ability to detect the situations where we have the most learning. “Understanding those mechanics could make us learn faster,” he said.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Francis McCabe – UNLV
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “A Novel Neural Prediction Error Found in Anterior Cingulate Cortex Ensembles” by James Michael Hyman, Clay Brian Holroyd, and Jeremy Keith Seamans in Neuron. Published online July 6 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.06.021

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
UNLV “Decoding Brain Function: Shedding Light On the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Its Ties to Learning.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 26 September 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/acc-learning-7587/>.
UNLV (2017, September 26). Decoding Brain Function: Shedding Light On the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Its Ties to Learning. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 26, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/acc-learning-7587/
UNLV “Decoding Brain Function: Shedding Light On the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Its Ties to Learning.” http://neurosciencenews.com/acc-learning-7587/ (accessed September 26, 2017).

Abstract

A Novel Neural Prediction Error Found in Anterior Cingulate Cortex Ensembles

Highlights
•The error/feedback-related negativity (FN) has figured into many theories of the ACC
•ACC neurons encoded expected outcomes as abstract outcome representations
•An FN may be generated as ACC neurons shift from encoding expected to actual outcomes

Summary
The function of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) remains controversial, yet many theories suggest a role in behavioral adaptation, partly because a robust event-related potential, the feedback-related negativity (FN), is evoked over the ACC whenever expectations are violated. We recorded from the ACC as rats performed a task identical to one that reliably evokes an FN in humans. A subset of neurons was found that encoded expected outcomes as abstract outcome representations. The degree to which a reward/non-reward outcome representation emerged during a trial depended on the history of outcomes that preceded it. A prediction error was generated on incongruent trials as the ensembles shifted from representing the expected to the actual outcome, at the same time point we have previously reported an FN in the local field potential. The results describe a novel mode of prediction error signaling by ACC neurons that is associated with the generation of an FN.

“A Novel Neural Prediction Error Found in Anterior Cingulate Cortex Ensembles” by James Michael Hyman, Clay Brian Holroyd, and Jeremy Keith Seamans in Neuron. Published online July 6 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.06.021

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