New Habits

Ever wondered how you instinctively take the same route to work every day, or always turn on the television as soon as you enter your home? Habits are behaviors that are wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. Recently, researchers at MIT have discovered a region of our brains that provides insight into how the brain can shift between new habits and old ones.

New Study

The new study has determined that a small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, has been identified as the controller of minute-by-minute control thinking and acting, and can be prompted on at any moment. The study offers hope for those trying to kick bad habits, as it shows that though habits may be deeply ingrained, the brain’s planning center can shut them off. The findings from this study can also help researchers develop possible intervention into that area of the brain in order to help people who are affected by certain kinds of conditions that stem from this part of the brain.

Habitual Behaviors

Habits often become so ingrained that we keep doing them even though we're no longer benefiting from them. The MIT team experimentally simulated this situation with rats trained to run a T-shaped maze. As the rats approached the decision point, they heard a tone indicating whether they should turn left or right. When they chose correctly, they received a reward. To show that the behavior was habitual, the researchers eventually stopped giving the trained rats any rewards, and found that they continued running the maze correctly. Once they had shown that the habit was fully ingrained, the researchers wanted to see if they could break it by interfering with a part of the prefrontal cortex known as the infralimbic (IL) cortex.

Scientists used a method called optogenetics to get inside certain cells with light, and were able to shut off the IL cortex activity for the seconds before the rats approached the part of the maze where they had to make a decision to turn right or left. The rats almost immediately stopped their habit of turning left and turned to the right instead. This showed that switching off the IL cortex changed the rats from instantly following their habits, and to instead, go the way they thought was right. The findings clearly indicate that the IL cortex is capable of changing habitual "moment-to-moment" behavior. It also appears that the IL cortex favors new habits over old ones.

This study is particularly useful for people who suffer from disorders involving overly habitual behavior, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People who suffer from OCD or similar anxiety disorders must battle with their compulsions and fixations on a daily basis, which can significantly affect their everyday life. If scientists could find a way to alter their habits, their symptoms could hopefully become more manageable, or even completely treatable.