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Understanding the brain: How human brain decides to choose an alcoholic drink?

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Posted April 14, 2014

Decisions, decisions… Each day you make thousands of them – from whether to drink that coffee to when to pursue a new romantic relationship or change careers.  All the time when we make decisions, we must rate the benefit of an option which needs to be weighed against the financial cost, and find more advantages than disadvantages. Neuroscientists have long questioned how the human brain makes decisions, what exactly happens in our brain when we are making decisions. A new study suggests that the brain considers various sources of information before making a decisions. But how does the brain decide to choose alcohol?

Image credit: Mick Stephenson/Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Image credit: Mick Stephenson/Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Previous studies have found that process of decisions making resides in a network with the anterior cingulate cortex which is responsible for decision-making, memory, creativity, language, judgement, attention and emotion.  The cingulate cortex is a part of the brain situated in the medial aspect of the cerebral cortex.

The new study reports that another area has been found – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which plays a critical role in processing appetitive stimuli and is important in human decisions making under conditions of uncertainty, including risky or ambiguous decisions. It is believed that these parts of the brain are the most important in decision-making process.

But new neuroscience studies reveal a new link between our brain cell activity and choices.

Dr. James MacKillop, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, identified the decision-making center of the brain through a research that analysed people’s cost-benefit decisions when it comes to consuming alcohol.

How did scientists find a new decision-making area of the brain?

The scientists enlisted an initial sample of 24 men aged 21-31, who were heavy drinkers. Participants were given a 15 dollar bar tab and then were asked to make decisions while being inside the fMRI scanner (fMRI, or Functional magnetic resonance imaging is a technique for measuring brain activity) about how many drinks they would take from many kinds of alcohol. Alcohol kinds were different – cheap ones and expensive. Dr. MacKillop explained that this procedure helps to assess how the price of alcohol affects the amount people consumed.

The scientists tried to span several levels of analysis, to focus on various clinical questions about decisions to choose alcohol and found the best way to identify which units of the brain are involved in this process. Surprisingly, this study revealed a variety of different brain activities when choosing differently priced and different kinds of alcohol. Firstly, an activation was observed in several areas of the cerebal cortex during the decisions to have a drink (in general). Greater activity was present in multiple distinct subunits of the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Secondly, there was a surprising result during the decisions to have a drink that were affected by the cost of alcohol: a greater activation was found in frontostriatal region, which is a part of the executive functions, for example, information manipulation in working memory, planning and organization, behavioral control, adaptation to changes and decision making.

The study showed that high price wasn’t the biggest problem for choosing a drink and deciding to buy it.  The scientists stated: “Once people decided that the cost of drinking was too high, they didn’t appear to experience a great deal of conflict in terms of associated brain activity. “ Finally, the researchers decided that frontostriatal region is the most important part of brain to choose a drink and it’s responsible for processing interceptive experiences, a person’s visceral physiological responses. They decided that alcohol addiction can cause the decisions-making mechanisms in the brain to go awry, leading to risky or even dangerous behaviors.

Understanding the features of these networks can potentially aid treatment of a variety of psychiatric conditions. Besides, this study could permit us to understand alcohol disorders and learn more about their treatment. We can clearly see that these findings indicate how much is yet to be learned about our brain and why and how we make decisions – one of the most important and complex human behaviors.

Sources: ScienceDaily, uga.edu, nature.com, europepmc.org, sciencenewsline.com, pnas.org, darmouth.edu, time.com, chicagobooth.edu, redandblack.com

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