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To Watch TV or to Get Food? Study Finds Two Brain Neurons Decide for Us

Update Date: May 27, 2013 10:16 AM EDT

When people decide between choosing to go and stay in regards to food, different parts of the brain work to help make that decision. Neuroscientists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory wanted to study how the brain decides whether or not someone stays on the couch to watch television or gets up for food. The team, headed by assistant professor Adam Kepecs found in mice models that this stay or go behavior is attributed to two different kinds of inhibitory neurons, brain nerve cells. These two types of cells have distinct activity patterns.

"There's a big gap in our knowledge between our understanding of neuron types in terms of their physical location and their place in any given neural circuit, and what these neurons actually do during behavior," Kepecs said according to Medical Xpress.

"We think about the brain and behavior in terms of levels; what the cell types are and the circuits or networks they form; which regions of the brain they are in; and what behavior is modulated by them. By observing that activity of specific cell types in the prefrontal cortex is correlated with a behavioral period, we have identified a link between these levels," Kepecs added.

Researchers have known that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in the brain's prefrontal cortex region is responsible for decision-making when it comes to food. But it was not until this new study that discovered the key circuit elements responsible for this type of decision activity. The researchers first had to create a mouse model with a genetic modification that would help them target neurons and proteins. With this model, the experimenters were able to identify and label specific neuron types using a light-activated protein technique called optogenetic tagging. This technique allowed researchers to pinpoint somatostatin and parvalbumin neurons. The researchers found that those two inhibitory neurons were responsible for foraging behavior.

By identifying the exact cells responsible for certain behaviors, more research into that region of the brain can be done. The study was published in Nature.

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