Breaking habits before they start

Our daily routines can become so ingrained that we perform
them automatically, such as taking the same route to work every day. Some
behaviors, such as smoking or biting your fingernails, become so habitual that
we can’t stop even if we want to.
Although breaking habits can be hard, MIT neuroscientists
have now shown that they can prevent them from taking root in the first place,
in rats learning to run a maze to earn a reward. The researchers first
demonstrated that activity in two distinct brain regions is necessary in order
for habits to crystallize. Then, they

were able to block habits from forming by
interfering with activity in one of the brain regions — the infralimbic (IL)
cortex, which is located in the prefrontal cortex.

The MIT researchers, led by Institute Professor Ann
Graybiel, used a technique called optogenetics to block activity in the IL
cortex. This allowed them to control cells of the IL cortex using light. When
the cells were turned off during every maze training run, the rats still
learned to run the maze correctly, but when the reward was made to taste bad,
they stopped, showing that a habit had not formed. If it had, they would keep
going back by habit.
“It’s usually so difficult to break a habit,” Graybiel says.
“It’s also difficult to have a habit not form when you get a reward for what
you’re doing. But with this manipulation, it’s absolutely easy. You just turn
the light on, and bingo.”
Graybiel, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain
Research, is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the June
27 issue of the journal Neuron. Kyle Smith, a former MIT postdoc who is now an
assistant professor at Dartmouth College, is the paper’s lead author.
Previous studies of how habits are formed and controlled
have implicated the IL cortex as well as the striatum, a part of the brain
related to addiction and repetitive behavioral problems, as well as normal
functions such as decision-making, planning and response to reward. It is
believed that the motor patterns needed to execute a habitual behavior are
stored in the striatum and its circuits.
Recent studies from Graybiel’s lab have shown that
disrupting activity in the IL cortex can block the expression of habits that
have already been learned and stored in the striatum. Last year, Smith and
Graybiel found that the IL cortex appears to decide which of two previously
learned habits will be expressed.
“We have evidence that these two areas are important for
habits, but they’re not connected at all, and no one has much of an idea of
what the cells are doing as a habit is formed, as the habit is lost, and as a
new habit takes over,” Smith says.
To investigate that, Smith recorded activity in cells of the
IL cortex as rats learned to run a maze. He found activity patterns very
similar to those that appear in the striatum during habit formation. Several
years ago, Graybiel found that a distinctive “task-bracketing” pattern develops
when habits are formed.
This kind of pattern “chunks” habits into a large unit that
the brain can simply turn on when the habitual behavior is triggered, without
having to think about each individual action that goes into the habitual
The researchers found that this pattern took longer to
appear in the IL cortex than in the striatum, and it was also less permanent.
Unlike the pattern in the striatum, which remains stored even when a habit is
broken, the IL cortex pattern appears and disappears as habits are formed and
broken. This was the clue that the IL cortex, not the striatum, was tracking
the development of the habit.
The researchers’ ability to optogenetically block the
formation of new habits suggests that the IL cortex not only exerts real-time
control over habits and compulsions, but is also needed for habits to form in
the first place.
 Source: Punch

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