Thursday, December 22, 2011

Habit Formation is Enabled by Gateway to Brain Cells

Research published in the journal Neuron shows that NMDA receptors on dopamine neurons in the brain's basal ganglia are essential to habit formation. These receptors function like gateways to the brain cells, letting in electrically charged ions to increase the activity and communication of neurons. Their pivotal role reminds neuroscientist Dr. Lei Phillip Wang of a computer's central processing unit. "The NMDA receptor is a commander, which is why it's called a master switch for brain cell connectivity," said Wang, the study's first author. To determine their role in habit formation, GHSU researchers used a genetic trick to selectively disable the NMDA receptors on dopamine neurons and found, for example, mice could be trained to push a lever for food without it becoming an automatic response. If they were full, they wouldn't push the lever. But just as humans can't refrain from flipping a light switch during a power outage, satiated mice with receptors could not pass up the lever. more

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