Electrical brain stimulation may spark a person's 'will to persevere'

Watch it in action — study suggests that unique human qualities are anchored in our brain cells

What gives some people the ability to persevere through difficult situations that others may find insurmountable?

The answer is no doubt a complicated one that may be beyond our full understanding, but new research published online today in the Cell Press journal Neuron provides some intriguing insights. The study pinpoints a region of the brain that, when stimulated, causes an individual to anticipate a challenge and possess a strong motivation to overcome it.

Josef Parvizi, MD, PhDLead author Dr. Josef Parvizi of the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University commented on the significance of the findings:

That few electrical pulses delivered to a population of brain cells in conscious human individuals give rise to such a high level set of emotions and thoughts we associate with a human virtue such as perseverance tells us that our unique human qualities are anchored dearly in the operation of our brain cells.

The study, conducted by Dr. Parvizi and his team, involved two individuals with epilepsy who had electrodes implanted in their brains to help doctors learn about the source of their seizures. The electrodes were situated in the anterior midcingulate cortex, a brain region that is thought to be involved in emotions, pain, and decision making.

When electrical charge was delivered to a location within this region, both patients described feeling the expectation of an imminent challenge coupled with a determined attitude to surmount it. This was accompanied by increased heart rate and physical sensations in the chest and neck. They did not experience any of these psychological or physical effects when they thought that their brains were being stimulated but no electrical charge was delivered. The same effects did not occur with stimulation of nearby regions only 5 mm away.

Imaging experiments conducted in Dr. Michael Greicius' laboratory at Stanford revealed that the site of stimulation in both patients was at the core of a network linking the anterior midcingulate cortex to other regions of the brain. "Our study pinpoints the precise anatomical coordinates of neuronal populations, and their associated network, that support complex psychological and behavioral states associated with perseverance," explained Dr. Parvizi.

The findings suggest that differences in the structure and function of this network may be linked with innate differences in our abilities to cope during tough situations. The results may even pertain to psychopathological conditions in which people experience a significantly reduced capacity to endure psychological or physical distress.

"These innate differences might potentially be identified in childhood and be modified by behavioral therapy, medication or, as suggested here, electrical stimulation," said Dr. Parvizi.[divider]

Watch a patient's experience with electrical brain stimulation

Two participants gave their consent to release their video files to reviewers of the manuscript at the time of submission, and one gave his additional consent to publish his video. Details of their subjective reports during the electrical brain stimulation procedure are shown in the report. The term "sham trial" refers to the instances when the electrical current was set at zero but the patient thought he was being stimulated.


The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex

Read the article

This article is freely available on the Cell Press/Neuron website for two weeks, until December 19, 2013.

Neuron, Parvizi et al: "The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex."[divider]

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Mary Beth O'LearyMary Beth O'Leary (@MaryBethPress) is Press Officer and Associate Media Relations Manager for Cell Press (@CellPressNews), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She began her career at Cell Press as an Senior Editorial Assistant for the journal Cell before transitioning into a role as Marketing/Publicity Coordinator. In December, she moved into her position as Press Officer for Cell Press's 29 journals. A graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, she studied literature and art history.

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1 Archived Comment

Russell December 6, 2013 at 8:41 pm

A very interesting piece of research but aren't the researchers overegging the pudding here? They've made a giant conceptual leap from 'someone attempting to put into words an experience of electrical brain stimulation' to a generalised 'will to persevere' and talk, ahem, of 'human virtues'. The research paper offers no conceptual analysis of what 'will to perseverve' actually might mean in practice, e.g. does it suffice for it to be only a fleeting feeling? Doesn't a will need to be acted on if we can say a person has the will to perservere? Can we determine that a person 'has' motivation from a fleeting comment while lieing in a bed? The ability to describe bodily sensations, poetically or otherwise, does not automatically mean there is a 'will' or any other 'human virtue' lurking somewhere behind the explanation of the sensation. Of course, brain circuitry is involved but without resolving basic conceptual questions concerning the psychology, one cannot say that the brain stimulation sparked a 'will' to anything. Sparking a will to interpret in words what the bodily sensations were? Yessiree. Triggering one of 'the human virtues'? Not by a long shot.


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