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Scientists study the brain to better understand habitual behavior. (Photo Illustration by Emily Crooks / The Signpost)

I’m a nail-biter. It’s a bad, bad habit. However, I have a good habit of always putting my seatbelt on before starting my car. Scientists have recently gone behind the scenes to better understand what the brain does when habitual behavior overpowers a person’s ability to control their actions.

A team of researchers led by Christina Gremel, a professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego, used mice in a study on what happens when a habit controls an action.

Rui Costa, from the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal and David Lovinger from NIAAA/NIH were senior authors on the study.

The study was published in Neuron, a journal dedicated to neuroscience, and showed findings that both goal-directed and habitual parts of the brain are at odds for control in an area of the brain dedicated to decision-making called the orbitofrontal cortex.

The researchers discovered that neurochemicals called endocannabinoids actually take over and allow for the habit to control the action, which in turn gives the goal-directed circuits in the brain a break.

The endocannabinoids are produced in the bodies of both humans and animals. The receptors for the neurochemical can be found in various places in the brain and body.

The system, referred to as the endocannabinoid system, is used in various processes such as appetite, pain sensation, mood, memory, and the psychoactive effects of cannabis.

As part of the study, mice were trained to push a lever to gain food as a reward. Two different environments were used, one that biased the mice toward goal-directed actions and one that raised them toward habitual actions.

The researchers were able to use chemicals to interrupt goal-directed actions, which let the habit take over in the mice.

This experiment showed that healthy mice, which were compared with people who do not suffer from psychiatric disorders, were able to easily flip from goal-directed actions to habitual actions.

“We need a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose,” Gremel said.

“However, we also encounter changing circumstances, and need the capacity to ‘break habits’ and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information. When we can’t, there can be devastating consequences.”

Researchers believe that their findings will point to a new path for therapy for people who suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or addictions, this may be accomplished by treating the person’s endocannabinoid system in order to reduce the control that habits have over their actions.

Information gathered from ScienceDaily.com

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