Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Prefrontal cortex


High-level cognitive and emotional experience arises from brain activity, but the specific brain substrates for religious and spiritual euphoria remain unclear. We demonstrate using fMRI scans in 19 devout Mormons that a recognizable feeling central to their devotional practice was reproducibly associated with activation in nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and frontal attentional regions. Nucleus accumbens activation preceded peak spiritual feelings by 1-3 seconds and was replicated in 4 separate tasks. Attentional activation in the anterior cingulate and frontal eye fields was greater in the right hemisphere. The association of abstract ideas and brain reward circuitry may interact with frontal attentional and emotive salience processing, suggesting a mechanism whereby doctrinal concepts may come to be intrinsically rewarding and motivate behavior in religious individuals.

Concepts: Neuroanatomy, Brain, Cerebrum, Basal ganglia, Limbic system, Frontal lobe, Prefrontal cortex, Ventromedial prefrontal cortex


Misophonia is an affective sound-processing disorder characterized by the experience of strong negative emotions (anger and anxiety) in response to everyday sounds, such as those generated by other people eating, drinking, chewing, and breathing [1-8]. The commonplace nature of these sounds (often referred to as “trigger sounds”) makes misophonia a devastating disorder for sufferers and their families, and yet nothing is known about the underlying mechanism. Using functional and structural MRI coupled with physiological measurements, we demonstrate that misophonic subjects show specific trigger-sound-related responses in brain and body. Specifically, fMRI showed that in misophonic subjects, trigger sounds elicit greatly exaggerated blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) responses in the anterior insular cortex (AIC), a core hub of the "salience network" that is critical for perception of interoceptive signals and emotion processing. Trigger sounds in misophonics were associated with abnormal functional connectivity between AIC and a network of regions responsible for the processing and regulation of emotions, including ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), posteromedial cortex (PMC), hippocampus, and amygdala. Trigger sounds elicited heightened heart rate (HR) and galvanic skin response (GSR) in misophonic subjects, which were mediated by AIC activity. Questionnaire analysis showed that misophonic subjects perceived their bodies differently: they scored higher on interoceptive sensibility than controls, consistent with abnormal functioning of AIC. Finally, brain structural measurements implied greater myelination within vmPFC in misophonic individuals. Overall, our results show that misophonia is a disorder in which abnormal salience is attributed to particular sounds based on the abnormal activation and functional connectivity of AIC.

Concepts: Brain, Cerebrum, Hippocampus, Limbic system, Prefrontal cortex, Ventromedial prefrontal cortex, Insular cortex, Galvanic skin response


The ability to infer intentions of other agents, called theory of mind (ToM), confers strong advantages for individuals in social situations. Here, we show that ToM can also be maladaptive when people interact with complex modern institutions like financial markets. We tested participants who were investing in an experimental bubble market, a situation in which the price of an asset is much higher than its underlying fundamental value. We describe a mechanism by which social signals computed in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex affect value computations in ventromedial prefrontal cortex, thereby increasing an individual’s propensity to ‘ride’ financial bubbles and lose money. These regions compute a financial metric that signals variations in order flow intensity, prompting inference about other traders' intentions. Our results suggest that incorporating inferences about the intentions of others when making value judgments in a complex financial market could lead to the formation of market bubbles.

Concepts: Brain, Economics, Cerebrum, Consciousness, Computer, Prefrontal cortex, Ventromedial prefrontal cortex, Bank


Attentional control ensures that neuronal processes prioritize the most relevant stimulus in a given environment. Controlling which stimulus is attended thus originates from neurons encoding the relevance of stimuli, i.e. their expected value, in hand with neurons encoding contextual information about stimulus locations, features, and rules that guide the conditional allocation of attention. Here, we examined how these distinct processes are encoded and integrated in macaque prefrontal cortex (PFC) by mapping their functional topographies at the time of attentional stimulus selection. We find confined clusters of neurons in ventromedial PFC (vmPFC) that predominantly convey stimulus valuation information during attention shifts. These valuation signals were topographically largely separated from neurons predicting the stimulus location to which attention covertly shifted, and which were evident across the complete medial-to-lateral extent of the PFC, encompassing anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and lateral PFC (LPFC). LPFC responses showed particularly early-onset selectivity and primarily facilitated attention shifts to contralateral targets. Spatial selectivity within ACC was delayed and heterogeneous, with similar proportions of facilitated and suppressed responses during contralateral attention shifts. The integration of spatial and valuation signals about attentional target stimuli was observed in a confined cluster of neurons at the intersection of vmPFC, ACC, and LPFC. These results suggest that valuation processes reflecting stimulus-specific outcome predictions are recruited during covert attentional control. Value predictions and the spatial identification of attentional targets were conveyed by largely separate neuronal populations, but were integrated locally at the intersection of three major prefrontal areas, which may constitute a functional hub within the larger attentional control network.

Concepts: Brain, Cerebrum, Limbic system, Attention versus memory in prefrontal cortex, Prefrontal cortex, Brodmann area 24, Anterior cingulate cortex, Cingulate cortex


Placebo analgesia is often conceptualized as a reward mechanism. However, by targeting only negative experiences, such as pain, placebo research may tell only half the story. We compared placebo improvement of painful touch (analgesia) with placebo improvement of pleasant touch (hyperhedonia) using functional MRI and a crossover design. Somatosensory processing was decreased during placebo analgesia and increased during placebo hyperhedonia. Both placebo responses were associated with similar patterns of activation increase in circuitry involved in emotion appraisal, including the pregenual anterior cingulate, medial orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, accumbens, and midbrain structures. Importantly, placebo-induced coupling between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and periaqueductal gray correlated with somatosensory decreases to painful touch and somatosensory increases to pleasant touch. These findings suggest that placebo analgesia and hyperhedonia are mediated by activation of shared emotion appraisal neurocircuitry, which down- or up-regulates early sensory processing, depending on whether the expectation is reduced pain or increased pleasure.

Concepts: Neuroanatomy, Brain, Cerebrum, Sensory system, Limbic system, Frontal lobe, Prefrontal cortex, Ventromedial prefrontal cortex


In humans recognition memory deficits, a typical feature of diencephalic amnesia, have been tentatively linked to mediodorsal thalamic nucleus (MD) damage. Animal studies have occasionally investigated the role of the MD in single-item recognition, but have not systematically analyzed its involvement in other recognition memory processes. In Experiment 1 rats with bilateral excitotoxic lesions in the MD or the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) were tested in tasks that assessed single-item recognition (novel object preference), associative recognition memory (object-in-place), and recency discrimination (recency memory task). Experiment 2 examined the functional importance of the interactions between the MD and mPFC using disconnection techniques. Unilateral excitotoxic lesions were placed in both the MD and the mPFC in either the same (MD + mPFC Ipsi) or opposite hemispheres (MD + mPFC Contra group). Bilateral lesions in the MD or mPFC impaired object-in-place and recency memory tasks, but had no effect on novel object preference. In Experiment 2 the MD + mPFC Contra group was significantly impaired in the object-in-place and recency memory tasks compared with the MD + mPFC Ipsi group, but novel object preference was intact. Thus, connections between the MD and mPFC are critical for recognition memory when the discriminations involve associative or recency information. However, the rodent MD is not necessary for single-item recognition memory.

Concepts: Brain, Cerebrum, Frontal lobe, Thalamus, Prefrontal cortex, Medial dorsal nucleus


Does silently talking to yourself in the third-person constitute a relatively effortless form of self control? We hypothesized that it does under the premise that third-person self-talk leads people to think about the self similar to how they think about others, which provides them with the psychological distance needed to facilitate self control. We tested this prediction by asking participants to reflect on feelings elicited by viewing aversive images (Study 1) and recalling negative autobiographical memories (Study 2) using either “I” or their name while measuring neural activity via ERPs (Study 1) and fMRI (Study 2). Study 1 demonstrated that third-person self-talk reduced an ERP marker of self-referential emotional reactivity (i.e., late positive potential) within the first second of viewing aversive images without enhancing an ERP marker of cognitive control (i.e., stimulus preceding negativity). Conceptually replicating these results, Study 2 demonstrated that third-person self-talk was linked with reduced levels of activation in an a priori defined fMRI marker of self-referential processing (i.e., medial prefrontal cortex) when participants reflected on negative memories without eliciting increased levels of activity in a priori defined fMRI markers of cognitive control. Together, these results suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control.

Concepts: Psychology, Brain, Cognitive science, Limbic system, Frontal lobe, Emotion, Premotor cortex, Prefrontal cortex


Although neuroscientific research has revealed experience-dependent brain changes across the life span in sensory, motor, and cognitive domains, plasticity relating to social capacities remains largely unknown. To investigate whether the targeted mental training of different cognitive and social skills can induce specific changes in brain morphology, we collected longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data throughout a 9-month mental training intervention from a large sample of adults between 20 and 55 years of age. By means of various daily mental exercises and weekly instructed group sessions, training protocols specifically addressed three functional domains: (i) mindfulness-based attention and interoception, (ii) socio-affective skills (compassion, dealing with difficult emotions, and prosocial motivation), and (iii) socio-cognitive skills (cognitive perspective-taking on self and others and metacognition). MRI-based cortical thickness analyses, contrasting the different training modules against each other, indicated spatially diverging changes in cortical morphology. Training of present-moment focused attention mostly led to increases in cortical thickness in prefrontal regions, socio-affective training induced plasticity in frontoinsular regions, and socio-cognitive training included change in inferior frontal and lateral temporal cortices. Module-specific structural brain changes correlated with training-induced behavioral improvements in the same individuals in domain-specific measures of attention, compassion, and cognitive perspective-taking, respectively, and overlapped with task-relevant functional networks. Our longitudinal findings indicate structural plasticity in well-known socio-affective and socio-cognitive brain networks in healthy adults based on targeted short daily mental practices. These findings could promote the development of evidence-based mental training interventions in clinical, educational, and corporate settings aimed at cultivating social intelligence, prosocial motivation, and cooperation.

Concepts: Psychology, Brain, Brain tumor, Magnetic resonance imaging, Cerebral cortex, Educational psychology, Snake scales, Prefrontal cortex


Recent social neuroscientific evidence indicates that implicit and explicit inferences on the mind of another person (i.e., intentions, attributions or traits), are subserved by a shared mentalizing network. Under both implicit and explicit instructions, ERP studies reveal that early inferences occur at about the same time, and fMRI studies demonstrate an overlap in core mentalizing areas, including the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These results suggest a rapid shared implicit intuition followed by a slower explicit verification processes (as revealed by additional brain activation during explicit vs. implicit inferences). These data provide support for a default-adjustment dual-process framework of social mentalizing.

Concepts: Brain, Neuroscience, Cognitive science, Cerebrum, Limbic system, Frontal lobe, Premotor cortex, Prefrontal cortex


Planning allows actions to be structured in pursuit of a future goal. However, in natural environments, planning over multiple possible future states incurs prohibitive computational costs. To represent plans efficiently, states can be clustered hierarchically into “contexts”. For example, representing a journey through a subway network as a succession of individual states (stations) is more costly than encoding a sequence of contexts (lines) and context switches (line changes). Here, using functional brain imaging, we asked humans to perform a planning task in a virtual subway network. Behavioral analyses revealed that humans executed a hierarchically organized plan. Brain activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and premotor cortex scaled with the cost of hierarchical plan representation and unique neural signals in these regions signaled contexts and context switches. These results suggest that humans represent hierarchical plans using a network of caudal prefrontal structures. VIDEO ABSTRACT.

Concepts: Neuron, Brain, Structure, Hierarchy, Cerebrum, Management, Premotor cortex, Prefrontal cortex