A new study reveals how the brain says “Oops!”

Summary: Researchers have identified a cluster of neurons in the frontal lobe that allows flexibility to learn new skills and focus to develop sophisticated skills. The brain uses the same group of neurons for performance feedback in various situations.

Source; Cedars of Sinai

Researchers from the Center for Neural Science and Medicine and the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai have discovered how signals from a cluster of neurons in the brain’s frontal lobe simultaneously give humans the flexibility to learn new tasks and focus necessary to develop highly specific skills.

Their research, published today in the peer-reviewed journal Science, provides a fundamental understanding of performance monitoring, an executive function used to manage daily life.

The main finding of the study is that the brain uses the same set of neurons for performance feedback in many different situations, whether a person is trying a new task for the first time or working to perfect a specific skill.

“Part of the magic of the human brain is that it’s so flexible,” said Ueli Rutishauser, Ph.D., professor of neurosurgery, neurology and biomedical sciences, director of the Center for Neural Science and Medicine, the Council of the Governors Chair in Neuroscience and lead author of the study. “We designed our study to decipher how the brain can generalize and specialize at the same time, two essential elements to help us pursue a goal. »

Performance monitoring is an internal signal, a kind of self-generated feedback, that lets a person know they made a mistake. An example is the person who realizes they have passed an intersection where they should have turned. Another example is the person who says something in a conversation and recognizes as soon as the words come out of their mouth that what they just said was inappropriate.

“That ‘Oh, shoot’ moment, that ‘Oops!’ moment, performance monitoring comes into play,” said Zhongzheng Fu, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at Cedars-Sinai’s Rutishauser Laboratory and first author of the study.

These signals help improve performance in future attempts by transmitting information to areas of the brain that regulate emotion, memory, planning, and problem solving. Performance monitoring also helps the brain adjust its focus by signaling the number of conflicts or difficulties encountered during the task.

“So an ‘Oops!’ moment might make someone pay more attention the next time they’re chatting with a friend or planning to stop by the store on their way home from work,” Fu said.

To see performance monitoring in action, the researchers recorded the activity of individual neurons in the medial frontal cortex of study participants. The participants were epileptic patients who, as part of their treatment, had electrodes implanted in their brains to help pinpoint the focus of their seizures. Specifically, these patients had electrodes implanted in the medial frontal cortex, a region of the brain known to play a central role in performance monitoring.

In the Stroop task, which pitted reading versus naming colors, participants saw the written name of a color, such as “red”, printed in ink of a different color, such as green, and were asked to name the color of the ink rather than the written words.

“It creates conflict in the brain,” Rutishauser said. “You have decades of training in reading, but now your goal is to break that habit of reading and say the color of the ink the word is written in instead.”

In the other task, the multi-source interference task (MSIT), which involves recognizing digits, participants saw three numerical digits on the screen, two identical and the other unique, for example, 1- 2-2. The subject’s task was to press the button associated with the unique number—in this case, “1”—resisting his tendency to press “2” because that number appears twice.

“These two tasks provide a strong test of how self-monitoring is engaged in different scenarios involving different cognitive domains,” Fu said.

A structured response

As the subjects performed these tasks, the investigators noted two different types of neurons at work. “Error” neurons fired strongly after an error was made, while “conflict” neurons fired in response to the difficulty of the task the subject had just performed.

“When we observed the activity of neurons in this area of ​​the brain, we were surprised to find that most of them only become active after a decision or action has been taken. This indicates that this area of ​​the brain plays a role in evaluating decisions after the fact, rather than making them.

There are two types of performance monitoring: general domain and specific domain. General domain performance monitoring tells us Something went wrong and can detect errors in any type of task, whether someone is driving a car, browsing in a social situation, or playing Wordle for the first time. This allows them to perform new tasks with few instructions, which machines cannot do.

“Machines can be trained to do one thing very well,” Fu said. “You can build a robot to flip burgers, but it can’t adapt those skills to frying dumplings. Humans, through general domain performance monitoring, can.”

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Performance monitoring is an internal signal, a kind of self-generated feedback, that lets a person know they made a mistake. Image is in public domain

Domain-specific performance monitoring tells the person who made the mistake what made a mistake, detecting specific errors – that he missed a trick, said something inappropriate, or chose the wrong letter in a puzzle. It’s a way for people to hone their individual skills.

Surprisingly, neurons signaling general and domain-specific information were intertwined in the medial frontal cortex.

“We used to think that there were parts of the brain dedicated only to monitoring general domain performance and others only to a specific domain,” Rutishauser said.

“Our study now shows that this is not the case. We learned that the same group of neurons can perform both general and domain-specific performance monitoring. When you listen to these neurons, you can read both types of information simultaneously.

To understand how these signals are interpreted by other areas of the brain, it helps to think of neurons as musicians in an orchestra, Rutishauser said.

“If they’re all playing randomly, the listeners — in this case, the brain regions receiving the cues — just hear a jumbled set of notes,” Rutishauser said.

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“But if they’re playing an arranged composition, it’s possible to hear the different melodies and harmonies clearly even with so many instruments – or performance monitoring neurons – all playing at once.”

Too much or too little of this signaling, however, can cause problems, Rutishauser said.

Excessive monitoring of performance can manifest as obsessive-compulsive disorder, causing a person to obsessively seek out mistakes that don’t exist. At the other extreme is schizophrenia, where performance monitoring may be underactive to such a degree that a person fails to perceive errors or inappropriateness in their words or actions.

“We believe that the mechanistic insights we have gained will be essential to perfecting treatments for these devastating psychiatric disorders,” Rutishauser said.

The research team also included Jeffrey Chung, MD, director of the Cedars-Sinai Epilepsy program; assistant professor of neurology Chrystal Reed, MD, Ph.D.; Adam Mamelak, MD, professor of neurosurgery and director of the functional neurosurgery program; Ralph Adolphs, Ph.D., professor of psychology, neuroscience and biology at the California Institute of Technology; and research associate Danielle Beam.

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Press office
Source: Cedars of Sinai
Contact: Press office – Cedars Sinai
Picture: Image is in public domain

Original research: Access closed.
The geometry of general domain performance monitoring in the human medial frontal cortexby Zhongzheng Fu et al. Science


The geometry of general domain performance monitoring in the human medial frontal cortex

Behavioral control to flexibly achieve desired goals depends on the ability to monitor one’s own performance. It is unclear how performance monitoring can be both flexible, to support different tasks, and specialized, to perform each task well.

We recorded single neurons in the human medial frontal cortex as subjects performed two tasks involving three types of cognitive conflict. Neurons encoding conflict probability, conflict, and error in one or both tasks were mixed together, forming a representational geometry that simultaneously allowed task specialization and generalization. Neurons retrospectively encoding conflict were used to update internal estimates of conflict likelihood. Representations of conflict in the population were compositional.

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