People can hone skills by practicing, and as that happens, our brains are able to recognize the mistakes we're making. Researchers wanted to know more about the neural mechanisms that allow us to monitor and modulate our own actions when we're taking on new tasks, something people often have to do. Reporting in Science, investigators have identified a group of neurons in the frontal lobe that enables us to review our own performance during a variety of different tasks. These neurons come into play whether we're improving our ability to do something we've already learned, or when we're trying something entirely new. These neurons can help us develop a specialized skillset or take on totally novel duties.
"Part of the magic of the human brain is that it is so flexible," said senior study author Ueli Rutishauser, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neural Science and Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, among other appointments. "We designed our study to decipher how the brain can generalize and specialize at the same time, both of which are critical for helping us pursue a goal."
People might have many moments throughout the day when their brain realizes they've made a mistake, whether they've taken a wrong turn or said something inappropriate.
"That 'Oh, shoot' moment, that 'Oops!' moment, is performance monitoring kicking in," explained first study author Zhongzheng Fu, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Cedars-Sinai.
Those moments help us pay closer attention to what we're doing the next time, so we can improve, added Fu. The performance-monitoring neurons send signals to parts of the brain that control problem-solving, memory, and emotions.
In this study, epilepsy patients were given tests that create some mild conflict in the brain. For example, in one test participants had to select ink color, when the ink was colored red but the ink spelled out the word 'green.'
As the participants made errors, the researchers could monitor activity in the area of the brain where performance-monitoring neurons are found, called the medial frontal cortex (MFC). In a surprise to the scientists, the neurons only became active after the mistake was made and the decision had been taken to completion. This suggested that the neurons are only evaluating our decisions, and they are not involved in making choices, said Fu.
In general monitoring, the brain knows that something went wrong with a task. But in specific monitoring, the brain identifies exactly what that mistake was. It was once thought that these evaluations occurred in different parts of the brain, but this study shows otherwise.
"We've learned that the very same group of neurons can do both domain general and domain specific performance monitoring. When you're listening to these neurons, you can read out both types of information simultaneously, " noted Rutishauser.
An excess of activity in performance monitoring neurons may lead to issues like obsessive compulsive disorder, and this work could help reveal new treatment options, added Rutishauser.