Brain Area That May Delay Need for Gratification Found

Vividly imagining the future helped people wait for rewards, study finds

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THURSDAY, April 15, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- A brain circuit that may govern the ability to resist instant gratification to achieve long-term benefit has been pinpointed by German researchers.

"Humans normally prefer larger over smaller rewards, but this situation can change when the larger rewards are associated with delays. Although there is no doubt that humans discount the value of rewards over time, in general, individuals exhibit a particularly significant ability to delay gratification," study author Dr. Jan Peters, of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, said in a news release.

The researchers used functional MRI to monitor the brain activity of volunteers who had to make a series of choices between smaller immediate rewards and larger delayed rewards. The results showed that the degree to which participants chose long-term rewards was predicted by signals in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain involved in reward-based decision making, and functional coupling of the ACC with the hippocampus, which is involved in imagining the future.

"Taken together, our results reveal that vividly imagining the future reduced impulsive choice. Our data suggests that the ACC, based on episodic predictions involving the hippocampus, supports the dynamic adjustment of preference functions that enable us to make choices that maximize future payoffs," Peters said.

The study is published in the April 15 issue of Neuron.

More information

The National Institutes of Health has more on the brain's reward systems.

SOURCE: Cell Press, news release, April 14, 2010

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