In a lab at MIT, a rat enters a T-shaped maze, hears a tone, and runs down the left arm towards a piece of chocolate. It’s a habit. The rat has done the same thing over so many days that once it hears the tone, it’ll run in the same direction even if there’s no chocolate to be found. Humans are driven by similar habits. Every morning, I hear my alarm go off, put some clothes on, and shamble into the kitchen to brew some coffee.
Habits, by their very nature, seem permanent, stable, automatic. But they are not, and the MIT rat tells us why. Earlier, Kyle Smith had added a light-sensitive protein to one small part of its brain – the infralimbic cortex (ILC). This addition allows Smith to silence the neurons in this one area with a flash of yellow light, delivered to the rat’s brain via an optic fibre. The light flashes for just three seconds, and the habit disappears. The rat hears the tone, but no longer heads down the chocolate arm.
The experiment shows that even though habits seem automatic, they still depend on ongoing supervision from the ILC and possibly other parts of the brain. They’re ingrained and durable, but subject to second-by-second control. And they can be disrupted in surprisingly quick and simple ways.
“We were all stunned by how immediate and on-line these effects really are,” says Smith. “Changing the activity of this small cortex area could profoundly change how habitual behaviour was, in a matter of seconds.”
By cutting out bits of a rodent’s brain, or inactivating them with chemicals, other scientists had already identified parts of the brain, including the ILC, that are important for habits. But these are somewhat clumsy methods. Smith’s team wanted some more refined, something that could inactivate the ILC on demand for short bursts of time.
They turned to optogenetics. This revolutionary technique takes light-sensitive proteins from around the tree of life, and uses viruses to introduce them into an animal’s neurons. By choosing the right protein, and targeting the right part of the brain, scientists can now excite or silence a chosen group of neurons with astounding precision, using little more than flashes of coloured light.
Working with supervisor Ann Graybiel and optogenetics founder Karl Deisseroth, Smith filled his rats’ ILCs with halorhodopsin – a protein that comes from salt-loving microbes, and silences neurons when hit by yellow light.
Smith then trained rats to run down one arm of his T-shaped maze towards some chocolate, or down the other towards a sugary drink. One tone set them off, and a second one told them which arm to run down. After days of practice, the habits became ingrained. Even when Smith started “devaluing” one of the rewards by lacing it with a nauseating chemical, the rat would still run towards it the next time it was tested, even if it didn’t drink. That’s a habit – a behavioural reflex. The tone sets off a chain of actions, regardless of what the rat gets out of them.
CIA torture is reason for France to exit NATO – Le Pen 2014-12-17 20:20 The shocking revelations of CIA torture techniques give France a reason to exit NATO, National Front party leader Marine Le Pen said on Saturday. The report on the CIA’s former interrogation practices has drawn wide criticism since its release.
“If indeed everyone is outraged by the tortures used by the US then, let’s leave NATO,” Le Pen said during an interview ...
900 Documented Examples of Obama's Lawbreaking, Lying, Corruption, Cronyism, Hypocrisy & Waste 2014-12-17 20:00
By Tim Brown from sonsoflibertymedia.com:
Our friend, Dan from Squirrel Hill, has updated his list to 900 documented examples of Barack Obama¡¯s lying, lawbreaking, corruption, cronyism, etc. He began with 252 examples, then quickly grew to 504 and later to 694. Recently, he added more than 200 more examples of the usurper-in-chief¡¯s unlawful acts.
Every President, every politician, and every human ...
A Step Closer to the Mysterious Origin of the Viking Sword Ulfberht 2014 12 16
The universe is full of mysteries that challenge our current knowledge. In "Beyond Science" Epoch Times collects stories about these strange phenomena to stimulate the imagination and open up previously undreamed of possibilities. Are they true? You decide.
Ulfberht was like a Medieval luxury brand for swords—but unlike your Gucci purse, the swords were of such high quality they were almost ...
Israel proposes natural gas pipeline to Southern Europe 2014-12-16 12:39
Israel is pushing for the European Union (EU) to approve the construction of a pipeline running from the Middle Eastern country to supply Cyprus, Greece and Italy with natural gas. The proposed EastMed pipeline will carry gas from the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields located in the Mediterranean Sea, to Southern Europe. As the Times of Israel reported in an ...
As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up 2014 12 16 A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.
Although fears that technology will displace jobs are at least as old as the Luddites, there ...