- Posted by Austin Swim
- On July 15, 2016
- 0 Comments
Making and breaking habits is a major topic of discussion in addiction and behavioral health, and scientists are constantly seeking to understand how exactly deliberate action can gradually grow into habit. An international team of researchers recently explored this question by examining lab mice.
Researchers were led by Christina Gremel, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California – San Diego. Gremel has been working as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health. Additional lead authors were Rui Costa, a principal investigator at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, and David Lovinger, a senior investigator at the NIAAA/NIH.
For the study, researchers wanted to better understand what happens in the brain to make habits control behavior. They used mice models for the experiment, essentially training the mice to perform the same lever-pressing action for a food reward in two environments—one that would encourage goal directed actions and one that would encourage habitual actions. Researchers found that by deleting a particular endocannabinoid receptor in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)-to-striatum pathway in some mice (called cannabinoid type 1, or CB1), these mice did not form habits. These findings correspond closely with their hypothesis, which was that endocannabinoids quiet or reduce activity in the OFC and, with it, the ability to shift to goal-directed action.
Gremel discussed the importance of exhibiting both goal-directed and habitual actions. She stated, “We need a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose. However, we also encounter changing circumstances, and need the capacity to ‘break habits’ and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information. When we can’t, there can be devastating consequences.”
So ultimately, being able to break a habit is largely determined by whether or not we can shift to goal-directed action—and that in itself is largely determined by activity in the OFC. Gremel puts it this way: “Habit takes over when the OFC is quieted.”
These findings are significant because they could point to a new therapeutic target for individuals suffering from addictions or OCD. Emphasizing treatment of the endocannabinoid system could very well make the difference in whether or not some patients are able to create new, wholesome habits out of goal-directed actions.
The study was recently published in the journal Neuron.