MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Response: Individuals differ in their ability to initiate intended actions. While some people tend to put tasks off, others easily manage to tackle them directly. Although interindividual differences in what we call ‘action control’ make a major contribution to our everyday life by affecting our physical and mental health as well as our academic and occupational performance, their neural foundation was mostly unknown.
Our study is the first to use both structural and functional neuroimaging methods to investigate the neural correlates of action control. We were able to show that poorer action control is significantly related to greater amygdala volume. The amygdala is considered to be a neuroanatomical hub for fear-motivated behavior. It processes sensory information in order to evaluate a given situation, behaviour or outcome. Hence, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger amygdala tend to evaluate future actions and their possible consequences more extensively. This, in turn, might lead to greater concern and hesitation, as observed in individuals with poorer action control.
Further, we were able to show that weaker functional resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) is significantly associated with lower action control scores, which are typical for procrastinators. Previous studies indicate that the dACC has reciprocal connections with the amygdala, playing a significant role in purposive behaviour and self-control mechanisms. Thus, a weaker functional connection between both brain areas might hinder successful action control, as interfering negative emotions and
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Our study is the first to show that interindividual differences in action control are associated with differences in the anatomical properties and functional connectivity of the amygdala. These neural differences might be the reason why some people find it more difficult than others to tackle an intended action directly.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: Due to the correlative approach of our study, our results reflect statistical relationships. Consequently, the underlying neurobiological mechanisms proposed by us have to remain speculative. Future studies should examine these mechanisms directly and investigate whether brain stimulation or specific training can lead to changes at the behavioural or neurobiological level. Such findings would not only provide a causal explanation for the structure-function relationships we uncovered but also offer a possibility to improve action control in individuals that struggle to initiate intended actions and tend to postpone upcoming tasks.
Caroline Schlüter, Christoph Fraenz, Marlies Pinnow, Patrick Friedrich, Onur Güntürkün, Erhan Genç. The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control. Psychological Science, 2018; 095679761877938 DOI: 10.1177/0956797618779380
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