Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Neuroscience of Volition

Very cool study.

When Your Brain Doesn't Know What Your Body Is Doing

Picture of brain

Mapping desire. Zapping the parietal cortex (in yellow and red) gave brain tumor surgery patients the intention of moving, whereas stimulating the premotor cortex (blue) made them move without realizing it.[Credit: Angela Sirig]

By Gisela Telis
ScienceNOW Daily News
7 May 2009

As anyone with a busy schedule can attest, intending to do something and actually doing it are two different things. But your brain doesn't make such neat distinctions, according to a new study. Researchers have found that when you wave at someone, for example, the intention to move your hand creates the feeling of it having moved, not the physical motion itself. The discovery sheds new light on how the brain tracks what the body does.

Although neuroscience has revealed much about how the brain processes experiences, the origin of intention has remained a mystery. Past studies linked it to the posterior parietal cortex and the premotor cortex, two regions of the brain also associated with motion and awareness of movement, but each region's role and how they work together remained unclear.

Neuroscientist Angela Sirigu of the Centre de Neuroscience Cognitive in Bron, France, became intrigued by the posterior parietal's role in willed actions when working with patients who had injured that part of their brains. The patients couldn't define when they began to want to move, says Sirigu, because they couldn't monitor their own intention.

Sirigu joined researchers at the University of Lyon in France and neurosurgeon Carmine Mottolese of Lyon's Hôpital Pierre Wertheimer to take advantage of a common operating room practice. As part of their preparation for surgery, neurosurgeons sometimes electrically stimulate the brains of their patients, who are awake under local anesthetic, to map the brain and minimize surgical complications. During brain tumor surgery on seven patients, Mottolese stimulated their frontal, parietal, and temporal brain regions, and Sirigu's team asked the patients to describe what they felt.

After stimulation of the parietal cortex, patients reported "wanting" to move their arms, legs, lips, or chest but didn't actually move them. When Mottolese stimulated the same region more intensely, patients believed that they had moved the body parts they'd intended to move even though they hadn't. Stimulating the premotor cortex, on the other hand, resulted in real movements, but the patients were never conscious of their motions.

The results, reported in tomorrow's issue of Science, suggest that "we need intention to be aware of what we are doing," says Sirigu. The brain's intention and its prediction of what will result from carrying out that intention create our experience of having moved, she says.

"I think this study is extremely exciting," says Patrick Haggard, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London in the United Kingdom. "It's quite encouraging to think that there could be a neuroscience of volition," he says. "And this idea of volition is about as central to our nature as it gets."

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