What is the difference between a habitual action and a goal-directed action? Consider the case of living in an apartment building with an elevator. Someone who lives in this building and takes the elevator every day does not have to think about where the buttons are; her hand automatically moves to the right number, no extra thought required. On the other hand, if someone comes to visit, he will have to examine the buttons and consciously choose the right one. At least, this is how Rui Costa, principal investigator at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme explains it. Although this is how the difference between habitual and goal-directed actions play out in human terms, Costa—along with study author Christina Gremel—carried out research to uncover what the brain does to facilitate one type of action or the other.

The research, a cooperative effort by the NIAAA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Champalimaud Foundation in Portugal, studied how mice shift between completing the same task as a habitual or as a goal-directed action. Costa and Gremel hoped to understand which regions of the brain control habitual activities. Their work confirmed previous research that found the dorsal medial striatum was responsible for goal-directed actions and the dorsal lateral striatum was responsible for habitual actions.

The team also discovered that a third region of the brain, the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), functions as the switch between the dorsal medial striatum and the dorsal lateral striatum. They found that when they inhibited the OFC’s neurons, the “generation of goal-directed actions was disrupted.”

Costa states that the results suggest “something quite extraordinary—the same neural circuits function in a dynamic way, enabling the learning of automatic and goal-directed actions in parallel.”

This research has implications for understanding the underlying causes of neuropsychiatric disorders. It also contributes to what is known about how habits are formed and broken in the brain.

This study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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