The neural processes that are responsible for switching between habit- and goal-directed actions in rodents are described in a study published in Nature Communications this week. The findings provide new insights into the way the brain is wired to deal with everyday real-life situations and could provide information about systems that are disrupted in disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder.
All animals constantly encounter circumstances that require an internal evaluation of the consequences of their actions and it is important that that they are able to shift between habit- and goal-directed actions. Although the neural circuitry underlying the learning and execution of goal-directed or habitual actions has in part been identified, little is known about how these actions and habits are encoded in these circuits. Christina Gremel and Rui Costa develop a novel mouse behavioural task where mice readily shift between performing lever pressing actions using either a goal-directed or a habitual strategy but with the same reward in each instance. By taking neuronal recordings from the brain, they find that the orbital frontal cortex and the dorsal medial striatum areas of the brain are necessary for behavioural shifts towards goal-directed actions, while the dorsal lateral striatum is necessary for behavioural shifts towards habitual actions.
Although these studies were carried out in mice, the authors hope that these findings will further our understanding of disorders where the balance between habits and goal-directed actions is disrupted such as addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder.