Localising ‘Oops!’ in the brain

Researchers have identified the part of the brain that is activated when we make a costly mistake, and they think the same region may be implicated in conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that are associated with disproportionate anxiety in everyday life.

Stephan Taylor and colleagues at the University of Michigan scanned the brains of 12 healthy participants while they performed a task that required them to press a particular button as fast as possible when they saw certain letters embedded among a string of distracters (e.g. the letter ‘S’” embedded like this ‘HHHSHHH’). Participants started out ten dollars in credit, and if they didn’t react fast enough, or they pressed the wrong button in response, they either missed out on a cash reward or incurred a cash penalty.

The researchers found that a part of the brain called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), a region of the frontal lobe associated with emotions, was activated far more when participants incurred a cash penalty, than when they just missed a reward.

“In general, the response to a mistake that cost them money was greater than the response to other mistakes, and the involvement of the rACC suggests the importance of emotions in decision and performance-monitoring processes” said lead researcher Stephan Taylor.

An earlier study with OCD sufferers found mistakes triggered activity in this brain region even when no penalty was incurred. “It appears to us so far that OCD patients may have a hyperactive response to making errors, with increased worry and concern about having done something wrong” Taylor said. His team now hope to test OCD sufferers on this task, and to study the impact of cognitive behavioural therapy on their response to errors.
Taylor, S.F., Martis, B., Fitzgerald, K.D., Welsh, R.C., Abelson, J.L., Liberzon, I., Himle, J.A. & Gehring, W.J. (2006). Medial frontal cortex activity and loss-related responses to errors. The Journal of Neuroscience, 26, 4063-4070.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.