Blame your bad habits on this ‘master controller’ brain cell

Everyone has habits they would rather get rid of. Whether it’s smoking, drinking too much or just eating too many chocolate hobnobs, habits can be incredibly tricky to break.

Blame your bad habits on this 'master controller' brain cell

New research is bringing us closer to understanding the reason for this, as the region in the brain responsible for creating our habits has been pinpointed for the first time.

It all comes down to a single cell, dubbed the “master controller”. This is according to a new paper, in which researchers from Duke University in Durham North Carolina studied the activity in a specific part of the brain called the striatum.

The paper, in the journal eLife, focused on a rare cell, called a fast-spiking interneuron (FSI), which is part of a group of neurons that control the exchange of messages between other kinds of neurons.

“This cell is a relatively rare cell but one that is very heavily connected to the main neurons that relay the outgoing message for this brain region,” said Nicole Calakos, an associate professor of neurology and neurobiology at the Duke University Medical Centre.

“We find that this cell is a master controller of habitual behaviour, and it appears to do this by re-orchestrating the message sent by the outgoing neurons.”

In a previous study, researchers found that mice trained to have a sweet tooth had stronger pathways in their striatum than others. But in the new study, the team wanted to work out which neurons were responsible.

“We were trying to put these pieces of the puzzle into a mechanism,” Calakos said. “And we thought because of the way that fast-spiking interneurons are connected up to the other cells, it could be the one cell that is driving these changes in all of them. That is what we set about testing.”

The team found that when mice formed a habit, it made these FSI cells more active. It is hoped the results will lead the way to developing treatments for damaging behaviour, like addiction.

“Some harmful behaviours like compulsion and addiction in humans might involve corruption of the normally adaptive habit-learning mechanisms.” Calakos said, “Understanding the neurological mechanisms underlying our habits may inspire new ways to treat these conditions.”

“I firmly believe that to develop new therapies to help people, we need to understand how the brain normally works, and then compare it to what the ‘broken’ brain looks like,” he added.

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