Scientists unlock the 'oops center'Evansville Courier & Press - February 18, 2005
That odd feeling that things around us just aren't right, that something bad is about to happen, apparently has roots not in the paranormal but in a structure right in the top of our brains, a new study has found. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis report today in the journal Science that they have identified a brain region that acts as an early warning system, working even at the subconscious level to help recognize and avoid high-risk situations.
"Our brains are better at picking up subtle warning signs than we previously thought," said Joshua Brown, a research associate in psychology and co-author of the study with associate professor Todd Braver.
Experiments that coupled computerized modeling to predict brain function with neuroimaging studies done while volunteers responded to cues on a computer screen demonstrated that the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) not only helps us sort through difficult decisions, but actually learns to predict bad consequences.
"In the past, we found activity in the ACC when people had to make a difficult decision among mutually exclusive options, or after they made a mistake," Brown said. Some scientists describe it as the "oops center" because the area near the top of the frontal lobes of the brain is literally the center of that irritated, sinking feeling we get when we realize we've made the wrong turn or clicked the wrong button on a control panel.
The region has long been known to be a part of the brain's executive control system, helping to mediate between fact-based reasoning and primal emotional responses to love, fear and anticipation.
Brown said the study sought to show that the brain region doesn't just respond to detection of a mistake, but instead detects the likelihood that a person is on the verge of making a mistake.
When the researchers monitored volunteers' responses to color cues on a computer screen, they found that the "oops center" had indeed learned the significance of a cue that would help prevent the operator from making an error, allowing the person to adjust behavior in time to avoid making the mistake.
Abnormalities in the brain region are associated with a number of serious mental disorders, including schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the study offers new insights into those conditions as well as possible new approaches to treatment.
2003 The Evansville Courier Company
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