MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Elsa F. Fouragnan PhD
School of Psychology
(Faculty of Health and Human Sciences)
University of Plymouth
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Response: Counterfactual thinking is a psychological process that involves the tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that are currently happening.
It is very important because it gives us the ability to switch away from uninteresting activities if better ones become available. For example, if you are working or doing the housework, you may be thinking about gardening or watching a movie later. As soon as your duties are finished, you may engage in these more exciting activities.
In our study, macaque monkeys were tasked to find treats under several colored cups (on a screen). Some of these cups were better than others but were not always available, thus the animals had to retain what they had learnt about the good cups in case they became available again. We found that a frontal part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex was responsible for tracking which cups were the best in order to efficiently switch to them if the opportunity arose. If this part of the brain was not functioning properly, then animals were stuck in non-optimal choices.
To reveal the causal role of the anterior cingulate cortex, we used a new neurostimulation method called low-intensity repetitive ultrasound to modulates activity in this part of the brain with millimetre accuracy.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: There are two main findings to take away from the study.
The first one is that the anterior cingulate cortex plays a fundamental role in evaluating counterfactual alternatives and in actually switching to the better one when possible.
The second important finding is that repetitive ultrasound can perturb decision-making processes in the brain by focally modulate brain activity. This new work follows a series of other studies showing the safeness and reversible effect of the neuromodulation method. This suggests that low-intensity pulsed ultrasound could potentially be used in humans and improve the lives of millions of patients with mental health conditions by stimulating brain tissues with millimetre accuracy.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: Further studies in humans would need to be undertaken to better understand the role of the anterior cingulate cortex in dysfunctional decision-making, particularly the inability to switch from bad habits or compulsive actions (like in addiction or OCD). Furthermore, trial studies would have to be conducted in humans to expose the potential role of low-intensity ultrasound in modulating brain circuits and hopefully restoring mental health.
The authors have no disclosures relevant to the manuscript. Full disclosures can be founded at NatureNeuroscience. The full manuscript can be found at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-019-0375-6.
This study was supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, and the Agence Nationale de la Recherche Francaise.
Elsa F. Fouragnan, Bolton K. H. Chau, Davide Folloni, Nils Kolling, Lennart Verhagen, Miriam Klein-Flügge, Lev Tankelevitch, Georgios K. Papageorgiou, Jean-Francois Aubry, Jerome Sallet, Matthew F. S. Rushworth. The macaque anterior cingulate cortex translates counterfactual choice value into actual behavioral change. Nature Neuroscience, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41593-019-0375-6
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