MIT neuroscientists, used rats learning to run a maze to earn a reward to show that they can prevent habits from taking root in the first place.
The researchers first demonstrated that activity in two distinct brain regions is necessary in order for habits to crystallize.
Then, they were able to block habits from forming by interfering with activity in one of the brain regions - the infralimbic (IL) cortex, which is located in the prefrontal cortex.
The MIT researchers, led by Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, used a technique called optogenetics to block activity in the IL cortex. This allowed them to control cells of the IL cortex using light.
When the cells were turned off during every maze training run, the rats still learned to run the maze correctly, but when the reward was made to taste bad, they stopped, showing that a habit had not formed. If it had, they would keep going back by habit.
The study suggests a new way to look for abnormal activity that might cause disorders of repetitive behavior.
Now that the researchers have identified the neural signature of a normal habit, they can look for signs of habitual behavior that is learned too quickly or becomes too rigid.
Finding such a signature could allow scientists to develop new ways to treat disorders of repetitive behavior by using deep brain stimulation, which uses electronic impulses delivered by a pacemaker to suppress abnormal brain activity.
The findings are published in the journal Neuron.