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Researchers discover new way to improve self-control

Teresa Tanoos's picture

It’s that time of year when people often lack self-control when it comes to eating too many Christmas cookies and other holiday goodies, but researchers have discovered a way to increase the ability to resist and enhance self-control by using electrical brain stimulation.

Researchers involved in the study, which has been published in The Journal of Neuroscience, believe that their discovery may also be useful in treating other disorders involving a lack of self-control, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Tourette’s syndrome.

The research team, from the University of Texas Health Science Center and the University of California, analyzed four study participants with epilepsy for the study, each of whom took part in a series behavioral tasks designed to slow down activity in the brain.

As a result, the team discovered that the slowed-down brain activity occurred in the prefrontal cortex of the brain for all four participants.

During the time that each participant was performing the behavioral tasks, as soon as their brain activity slowed down in the prefrontal cortex, the researchers administered brief electrical stimulation via electrodes applied directly to the surface of the brain to see what would happen.

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The researchers found that the electrical stimulation increased the slowing down of behavioral activity; thus, resulting in an enhanced form of self-control that improved the participants’ ability to control their behavior while performing tasks for the study.

By the same token, there wasn’t any change in the behavior of the participants when the electrical stimulation was applied outside the prefrontal cortex, instead of directly to the surface of the brain, which the research team indicated may be because the effects of electrical stimulation are specific to the prefrontal cortex.

The study’s senior author Nitin Tandon from the Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at the UTHealth Medical School said that every day we have occasions when we have to inhibit our reactions to things, citing the example of how “one must stop speaking when it's inappropriate to the social context and stop oneself from reaching for extra candy.”

Tandon says that the brain has a circuit “for inhibiting or braking responses”, and believes this study is the first to demonstrate that such “braking system” can be enhanced through brain stimulation.

Although the research team says the findings of their study are promising, they admit that they fail to prove that direct electrical stimulation will be effective in treating other disorders involving self-control, such as ADD, Tourette’s syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

However, they do believe their study could be helpful in the future as it pertains to treating other self-control disorders.

SOURCE: Chronometric Electrical Stimulation of Right Inferior Frontal Cortex Increases Motor Braking, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3468-13.2013, Jan R. Wessel, Christopher R. Conner2, Adam R. Aron1, Nitin Tandon, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, 4 November 2013.