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A new study in macaque monkeys has shed light on which parts of the brain support credit assignment processes (how the brain links outcomes with its decisions) and, for the first time, how low-intensity transcranial ultrasound stimulation (TUS) can modulate both brain activity and behaviours related to these decision-making and learning processes.

Illustration of a brain

While currently developed in an animal model, although in a brain area homologous to the one in humans, this line of research and the use of TUS could one day be applied to clinical research to tackle psychiatric conditions where maladaptive decisions are observed.

The study published in the journal Science Advances shows that credit assignment-related activity in this small lateral prefrontal area of the brain, which supports adaptive behaviours, can be safely, reversibly and quickly disrupted with TUS.

After stimulating this brain area, the animals in the study became more exploratory in their decisions. As a consequence of the ultrasound neuromodulation, behaviour was no longer guided by choice value – meaning that they could not understand that some choices would cause better outcomes – and decision-making was less adaptive in the task.

The study also showed that this process remained intact if another brain region (also part of the prefrontal cortex) was stimulated as control condition; showing for the first time how task-related brain modulation is specific to stimulation of specific areas that mediate a certain cognitive process.

The work was co-led by the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging at the University of Oxford, and co-authored by Radboud University, Netherlands; PSL Research University, Paris, France; Pôle Hospitalo-Universitaire, Paris, France; the University of Paris; and the University of Lyon, France.

Read the full story on the University of Oxford website. 

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