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Our brain has a 'simulator' that imagines scenarios while planning

We’ve all been there. You’re standing at a crossroads, pondering the “what ifs” of life. Should you take that new job offer? Move to a different city? Break up with your significant other? While the future remains uncertain, our brains have a fascinating way of simulating possible outcomes and planning accordingly.

A remarkable study has unveiled the neural pattern that takes place during planning. Researchers have found that the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two key brain regions, collaborate to create mental simulations of potential actions, allowing us to make informed decisions.

Prefrontal cortex and hippocampus

The prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, plays a crucial role in planning and decision-making. It acts as a mental simulator, allowing us to envision different scenarios and their potential outcomes. However, this simulation process relies on information from another brain region: the hippocampus.

The hippocampus, nestled deep within the brain’s temporal lobe, is responsible for memory formation and storage. It creates a mental representation of our experiences, forming a cognitive map of the world around us. This map includes information about spatial relationships, objects, and events.

When the prefrontal cortex engages in planning, it accesses this cognitive map stored in the hippocampus. It uses this information to construct detailed mental simulations of potential actions and their consequences. By drawing on our past experiences and knowledge, the prefrontal cortex can evaluate different options and make informed decisions about how to proceed.

“The prefrontal cortex acts as a ‘simulator,’ mentally testing out possible actions using a cognitive map stored in the hippocampus,” explained Marcelo Mattar, assistant professor at New York University and co-author of the study.

Computational model of brain’s planning

To better understand the brain’s planning process, the research team developed a computational model that could predict brain activity during decision-making. 

The model, a recurrent neural network (RNN), learned patterns from incoming information, much like how our brains adapt and learn over time.

This innovative model took into account “imagined actions,” the mental simulations we create when considering different choices. 

It’s like a chess player envisioning several moves ahead before settling on the best one. By simulating potential futures, we can quickly adjust to new environments, such as finding an alternate route when our usual path is blocked.

Brain of rats and humans while planning

To validate their computational model, the research team conducted experiments involving both humans and rats. Human participants were tasked with navigating a virtual maze on a computer screen, while their brain activity was monitored using neuroimaging techniques. 

The researchers specifically focused on recording neural activity during the moments when participants paused to plan their next move within the maze.

In a parallel experiment, rats were placed in a physical maze that mirrored the design of the virtual maze used for humans.Neural recordings were taken from the rats’ brains as they navigated through the maze, allowing the researchers to compare the neural patterns observed in both species.

Surprising brain activity

The results of these experiments were noteworthy. In humans, there was a clear correlation between the time spent deliberating over the next move in the maze and the intensity of neural activity observed in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. 

This suggests that these brain regions are actively engaged in the planning process, with increased activity reflecting a greater degree of mental simulation and decision-making.

Furthermore, the neural activity patterns recorded in the rats closely resembled those predicted by the computational model. This alignment between real-world observations and model predictions provides strong evidence for the validity of the model and its ability to accurately capture the neural mechanisms underlying planning behavior.

Study implications

This study has far-reaching implications for understanding the neural underpinnings of planning – a crucial aspect of human and animal intelligence. 

“This research sheds light on the neural and cognitive mechanisms of planning – a core component of both human and animal intelligence. A deeper understanding of these brain mechanisms could ultimately improve the treatment of disorders affecting decision-making abilities,” said Mattar.

By unraveling the intricate pattern between the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, scientists are one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of the brain’s planning prowess. 

This knowledge could pave the way for new therapies for individuals struggling with decision-making difficulties, potentially improving their quality of life.

To sum it up, the next time you find yourself lost in thought, contemplating the endless possibilities of the future, remember that your brain is hard at work, simulating those scenarios to guide you toward the best decision. It’s like having a personal fortune-teller inside your head, helping you navigate life’s uncertainties.

The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.


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