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Updated 10:00 AM April 17, 2006




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Oops! Study measures brain's response to costly mistakes

A team of U-M researchers has looked inside the human brain and captured the instant when someone makes a costly mistake. What they've found may help scientists understand mental health problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The scientists found that a particular part of the brain called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, or rACC, becomes much more active when a person realizes he or she has made an error that carries consequences—for instance, losing money.

By contrast this area of the brain doesn't show the same level of activity when the mistake doesn't carry a penalty, or even when a correct action carries a reward. The rACC is thought to be involved with emotional responses and scientists had suspected it also might be involved in response to costly errors. But this is the first brain-imaging study to test that idea.

The U-M team previously had shown that the rACC area became much more active in response to a no-penalty error in the brains of a small group of OCD patients, compared to people without the condition. OCD often is characterized by an untoward anxiety or fear about errors or failures in certain aspects of everyday life, with repetitive patterns of behavior to ward off or prevent such events.

The new research published in the Journal of Neuroscience involved 12 healthy adults who had their brains scanned using a powerful functional MRI (fMRI) imaging machine while they were asked to respond to a series of 360 visual-based tests.

Some of the tests carried a monetary reward between 25 cents and $2, while others carried penalties of the same size. Still others carried no reward or penalty. The participants were told they had a $10 credit to begin and that they would receive real cash depending on their balance at the end.

The participants had to correctly press a button corresponding to one of two alphabetic letter pairs within a deadline of a few hundred milliseconds. They were instructed to determine which letter was the odd one in a series. Some of the letter sequences were more confusing than others. Participants received immediate feedback telling them if they were wrong or too late in responding.

"In general, the response to a mistake that cost them money was greater than the response to other mistakes, and the involvement of the rACC suggests the importance of emotions in decision and performance-monitoring processes," says Dr. Stephan Taylor, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical School and lead author of the paper. "It's very interesting to us that the same part of the brain that responded in our OCD study on regular, no-cost errors also responded in healthy individuals when we made the error count more."

The research confirms previous U-M studies that used a different brain-activity monitoring technique, led by senior author William Gehring, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology and director of the Human Brain Electrophysiology Laboratory.

"We hypothesized that the brain response to errors was involved in an emotional reaction to making an error," Gehring says. "Our new fMRI result not only confirms this, but it also allows us to pinpoint the area in the brain that shows the exaggerated error response."

Taylor says the next step is to study patients using the same test as was used in healthy participants. The researchers also hope to study the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of "talk therapy," on OCD patient response to errors.

The U-M fMRI study currently is recruiting participants who have OCD and people without OCD to act as comparisons. For more information visit and search for keyword "OCD."

In addition to Taylor, Gehring and Joe Himle of the Department of Anxiety Disorders Program, the study's authors include U-M psychiatrists Dr. Brian Martis, Dr. Kate Fitzgerald, Dr. James Abelson and Dr. Israel Liberzon, and Robert Welsh of the Department of Radiology.

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