Identifying the Brain Networks Involved in Free Will

Summary: Researchers report brain stimulation to different parts of a specific brain network can change perceptions of free will.

Source: Vanderbilt University.

Utilizing lesion network mapping, a recently developed technique for analyzing how the brain works, Ryan Darby, MD, assistant professor of Neurology at Vanderbilt, studied free will perception related to movement decisions.

In the study, published online October 2018 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he, along with researchers from Harvard Medical School, studied cases of akinetic mutism (patients who lack the motivation to move or speak) and alien limb syndrome (patients who feel that movement is generated by someone else.)

Their study showed that although injuries disrupting volition — the desire to act — can occur in many different locations, they fall within the same brain network. Injuries disrupting agency — the feeling of responsibility for carrying out those actions — also can occur in many different locations, but they fall within a separate network.

“Our approach challenges the assumption that neuropsychiatric symptoms should localize to one brain region, and instead shows that these symptoms localized to interconnected brain networks,” said Darby, the lead author of the study. “Once we understand that agency and volition localize to brain networks, can we then take that knowledge and develop a new approach to treating a symptom?”

Supporting this possibility, the authors found that brain stimulation to different parts of these brain networks could change free will perception.

They also studied psychiatric patients with disrupted free will, including motor conversion disorder (paralysis or abnormal movements not related to an organic cause) and catatonia (unresponsiveness by someone who appears to be awake). These psychiatric patients also had neuroimaging abnormalities in brain networks associated with volition and agency.

a brain
Supporting this possibility, the authors found that brain stimulation to different parts of these brain networks could change free will perception. image is in the public domain.

“There are very few approaches where you can compare a similar type of symptom in a neurological patient and a psychiatric patient,” Darby said. “Our study shows the promise of using our network localization method in neurological patients to better understand symptoms in psychiatric patients. That being said, it’s the first time we have used our technique with neuroimaging abnormalities in psychiatric patients. It would require further study and validation, but I think the promise is there.”

The senior author of the study is Michael D. Fox, MD, PhD, of Harvard, the director of the Laboratory for Brain Network Imaging and Modulation. Darby worked with Fox during his time as the Sidney R. Baer Jr. Research Fellow in Clinical Neurosciences at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Darby has previously utilized lesion network mapping in published studies of delusions/Capgras syndrome and criminal behavior.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Craig Boerner – Vanderbilt University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Lesion network localization of free will” by R. Ryan Darby, Juho Joutsa, Matthew J. Burke, and Michael D. Fox in PNAS. Published October 1 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Vanderbilt University”Identifying the Brain Networks Involved in Free Will.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 2 October 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Vanderbilt University(2018, October 2). Identifying the Brain Networks Involved in Free Will. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved October 2, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Vanderbilt University”Identifying the Brain Networks Involved in Free Will.” (accessed October 2, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Lesion network localization of free will

Our perception of free will is composed of a desire to act (volition) and a sense of responsibility for our actions (agency). Brain damage can disrupt these processes, but which regions are most important for free will perception remains unclear. Here, we study focal brain lesions that disrupt volition, causing akinetic mutism (n = 28), or disrupt agency, causing alien limb syndrome (n = 50), to better localize these processes in the human brain. Lesion locations causing either syndrome were highly heterogeneous, occurring in a variety of different brain locations. We next used a recently validated technique termed lesion network mapping to determine whether these heterogeneous lesion locations localized to specific brain networks. Lesion locations causing akinetic mutism all fell within one network, defined by connectivity to the anterior cingulate cortex. Lesion locations causing alien limb fell within a separate network, defined by connectivity to the precuneus. Both findings were specific for these syndromes compared with brain lesions causing similar physical impairments but without disordered free will. Finally, our lesion-based localization matched network localization for brain stimulation locations that disrupt free will and neuroimaging abnormalities in patients with psychiatric disorders of free will without overt brain lesions. Collectively, our results demonstrate that lesions in different locations causing disordered volition and agency localize to unique brain networks, lending insight into the neuroanatomical substrate of free will perception.

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