Neurofeedback and motivation

Using a neurofeedback brain imaging strategy, Duke University scientists are aiming to manipulate specific neural circuits from a brain area critical for motivation using thoughts and imagery.

Progress in life, in all fields of endeavour, follows our expectations.  When you were very young, you were free to learn and ready for anything.  As you grew you started to receive feedback that you were good at some things and bad at others.  You were praised or blamed and that started to shape your belief in what you could and could not do.  As a child you were pure potential.  You could learn anything (almost) within human capacity.  You had within you the seeds of becoming a physician, an attorney, an engineer, a craftsman, a dancer or an Olympic athlete.  It never occurred to you that learning was difficult.  When older children or adults perform the game of life they act out roles based on their self-concept.  They might have a high self-concept in one area but a low one in something else.  Self-concept is no more real than the shadow of a shadow.  It is an illusion imposed on you long ago.   Can you learn to move past a limited self-concept by first recognising it and then understanding it – then opening your mind to what you can still be.

Neurofeedback starts with EEG signals detected at the scalp

“Neurofeedback” is a specialised form of biofeedback - a technique that allows people to monitor aspects of their own physiology, such as heart rate and skin temperature and it can help them generate strategies to overcome anxiety and stress or to cope with other medical conditions.
"These methods show a direct route for manipulating brain networks centrally involved in healthy brain function and daily behaviour," said study's senior investigator R Alison Adcock, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

The new study focused on dopamine, a neurochemical well known for its role in motivation, experiencing rewards, learning and memory, which is found in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the brain.

Previous research by the group showed that when people are given incentives to remember specific images, an increase in VTA activation before the image appears predicts whether the participants are going to successfully remember the image.

In the new study, the team encouraged participants in the scanner to generate feelings of motivation -- using their own personal strategies -- during 20-second intervals.  When the scientists provided participants with neurofeedback from the VTA, participants were able to learn which strategies worked, and ultimately adopt more effective motivational strategies.

Compared to control groups, the neurofeedback-trained participants successfully elevated their VTA activity.

“Because this is the first demonstration of its kind, there is much still to be understood. But these tools could offer benefits for everyone, particularly those with depression or attention problems,” said Adcock in a paper described in the journal Neuron.  The neurofeedback training also activated other regions involved in learning and experiencing rewards, confirming that the brain changes its activity more broadly as a result of neurofeedback.

The team plans to conduct the same study in participants with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

CITATION:  “Cognitive Neurostimulation: Learning to Volitionally Sustain Ventral Tegmental Area Activation,”

Jeff J. MacInnes, Kathryn C. Dickerson, Nan-kuei Chen, and R. Alison Adcock. Neuron, March 3, 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2016.02.002