Brain Scans Track Human Game Strategies

High-tech imaging allowed researchers to predict who'd win and lose

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THURSDAY, Dec. 8, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Using real-time MRI scans that looked for activity in the brain's reward and attention centers, researchers say they were often able to predict which people would succeed or fail at a visual game.

"Before we present the task, we can use brain activity to predict with about 70 percent accuracy whether the volunteers will give a correct or an incorrect response," study lead author Ayelet Sapir, a postdoctoral research associate in neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a prepared statement.

The game involved discriminating the direction of a field of moving dots. Eleven seconds before the volunteers did this task, they were given a hint in the form of an arrow that pointed to where the moving dots were likely to appear. However, the dots only appeared on the screen for one-fifth of a second and could easily be missed by a volunteer wasn't paying close attention.

After the arrow was shown, and before the dots appeared, the volunteers' brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which revealed increased blood flow to brain regions with heightened activity.

Based on these brain-activity patterns, which reflected whether or not the volunteers had used the arrow hint, the researchers found they could often predict whether a volunteer would provide the correct response.

The brain's "reward centers" in the frontal lobes often lit up as individuals tried to outsmart the computer, the researchers noted.

"The rewards system is involved in regulating behavior based on previous experiences of rewards and punishments," co-researcher Dr. Giovanni d'Avossa, an instructor in neurology, said in a prepared statement. "It also may help us build up predictions of what the world should be like and how certain events go together. When it works well, the world makes sense to you."

Other areas activated during the test included neurological centers for motion analysis, as well regions involved in visual attention.

The study appears in the Dec. 6-10 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information

RadiologyInfo has more about functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain.

SOURCE: Washington University School of Medicine, news release, Nov. 29, 2005

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