A specific part of the brain called the caudate nucleus could control pessimistic responses, according to animal tests, a finding which might help us unlock better treatments for mental disorders like anxiety and depression.
These disorders often come with negative moods triggered by a pessimistic reaction, and if scientists can figure out how to control that reaction, we might stand a better chance of dealing with the neuropsychiatric problems that affect millions of people worldwide – and maybe discover the difference between glass half full and glass half empty people along the way.
The research team from MIT found that when the caudate nucleus was artificially stimulated in macaques, the animals were more likely to make negative decisions, and consider the potential drawback of a decision rather than the potential benefit.
This pessimistic decision-making continued right through the day after the original stimulation, the researchers found.
"We feel we were seeing a proxy for anxiety, or depression, or some mix of the two," says lead researcher Ann Graybiel. "These psychiatric problems are still so very difficult to treat for many individuals suffering from them."
The caudate nucleus has previously been linked to emotional decision-making, and the scientists stimulated it with a small electrical current while the monkeys were offered a reward (juice) and an unpleasant experience (a puff of air to the face) at the same time.
In each run through the amount of juice and the strength of the air blast varied, and the animals could choose whether or not to accept the reward – essentially measuring their ability to weigh up the costs of an action against the benefits.
When the caudate nucleus was stimulated, this decision-making got skewed, so the macaques started rejecting juice/air ratios they would have previously accepted. The negative aspects apparently began to seem greater, while the the rewards became devalued.
"This state we've mimicked has an overestimation of cost relative to benefit," says Graybiel. After a day or so, the effects gradually disappeared.
The researchers also found brainwave activity in the caudate nucleus, part of the basal ganglia, changed when decision-making patterns changed. This might give doctors a marker to indicate whether someone would be responsive to treatment targeting this part of the brain or not.
The next stage is to see whether the same effect can be noticed in human beings – scientists have previously linked abnormal brain activity in people with mood disorders to regions connected to the caudate nucleus, but there's a lot more work to be done to confirm these neural connections.
Making progress isn't easy because of the incredibly complexity of the brain, but the researchers think their results show the caudate nucleus could be disrupting dopamine activity in the brain, controlling mood and our sense of reward and pleasure.
"There must be many circuits involved," says Gabriel. "But apparently we are so delicately balanced that just throwing the system off a little bit can rapidly change behaviour."
The research has been published in Neuron.