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University of Maryland School of Medicine, NIH study pinpoints brain area's role in learning
Date:11/26/2012

An area of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for decisions made on the spur of the moment, but not those made based on prior experience or habit, according to a new basic science study from substance abuse researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Scientists had previously believed that the area of the brain was responsible for both types of behavior and decision-making. The distinction is critical to understanding the neurobiology of decision-making, particularly with regard to substance abuse. The study was published online in the journal Science.

Scientists have assumed that the orbitofrontal cortex plays a role in "value-based" decision-making, when a person compares options and weights consequences and rewards to choose best alternative. The Science study shows that this area of the brain is involved in decision-making only when the value must be inferred or computed rapidly or hastily. If the value has been "cached" or pre-computed, like a habit, then the orbitofrontal cortex is not necessary.

The same is true for learning if a person infers an outcome but it does not happen, the resulting error can drive learning. The study shows that the orbitofrontal cortex is necessary for the inferred value that is used for this type of learning.

"Our research showed that damage to the orbitofrontal cortex may decrease a person's ability to use prior experience to make good decisions on the fly," says lead author Joshua Jones, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a research scientist at NIDA, part of the National Institutes of Health. "The person isn't able to consider the whole continuum of the decision the mind's map of how choices play out further down the road. Instead, the person is going to regress to habitual behavior, gravitating toward the choice that provides the most value in its imm
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Contact: Karen Robinson
karobinson@som.umaryland.edu
410-706-7590
University of Maryland Medical Center
Source:Eurekalert

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