The brain acts through habitual action and goal-directed action. It is important to be able to switch back and forth between these types of actions: For example, if our brains operated only on goal-directed action, we would have to think about the process of driving home every day, following a set of directions, or concentrating on basic tasks each time we do them. Instead, our mental auto pilot switch kicks on. These are the good habits.
The main problem that occurs when the goal-directed action is suppressed is that habitual action takes over—and this is one of the issues at the root of addiction. Habitual behaviors stem from a loss of behavioral control and purposefulness. This also means that this same habitual action within the brain is linked to obsessive compulsive disorder and possibly other disorders as well.
New research has been focusing on one of the brain’s naturally produced chemicals and its effects on this process. Endocannabinoids are neurochemicals that actually slow down or put to sleep the decision-making area of the brain (known as the orbitofrontal cortex), making habit kick in.
The study on the endocannabinoids was conducted by Christina Gremel of UC San Diego, who works in research on alcohol abuse and alcoholism, Rui Costa of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, and David Lovinger of the NIAAA/NIH, and was published in the journal Neuron. The team has previously studied the actions of the orbitofrontal cortex, mapping its role in goal-directed action. Working with a similar process on mice, the team chemically decreased activity in this part of the brain by focusing on the endocannabinoid levels and receptors.
The word endocannabinoid might remind people of cannabis, and in fact, the endocannabinoid system is what facilitates cannabis’ psychoactive effects. But this system is also suspected to be involved in the body’s appetite, mood, memory, and pain sensation. Both humans and animals produce this neurochemical naturally and have receptors for it throughout the body. It was already known that endocannabinoids reduce neuron activity. What this study provided was the most convincing evidence we have that this chemical acts as a damper on that orbitofrontal cortex, kicking in habitual action chemically.
Mice are like humans in that they easily switch between goal-directed actions and habitual actions when they have healthy brains (or don’t have a preexisting neuropsychiatric disorder). The mice, like humans, can be put in different environments and situations and still achieve the task just as easily as they did originally by turning off the mental auto-pilot and problem solving. By manipulating the endocannabinoid receptors, the team was able to target that chemical as the factor to disrupt this switch, further proving the hypothesis.
So why is this research important? Habits are important for our routine actions; if we didn’t have them, everything would take much longer to do because we would have to work methodically. However, we also need to be able to break those habits when we are faced with new information, a new situation. If we can’t do this, the consequences can be very damaging.
This is what happens for people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder—there is an overreliance on habitual action and the brain is then unable to shift back into goal-directed mode. From a psychological standpoint, it is important to understand the severity of OCD, which is often viewed in the media as a punchline to a joke but in reality can be and often is a very severe disorder, like addiction.
Another compelling aspect of this research is the role this system may play in depression and anxiety. Both these disorders are often accompanied by self-punitive thinking, which in itself becomes habitual. When people suffering from depression or anxiety experience guilt over not doing something well enough or at all, they can exacerbate the cycle of guilt by punishing themselves with reminders of what they see as their failures, thereby deepening the depression or anxiety. If habitual self-punitive behaviors can be linked to increased levels of endocannabinoids, then suppression of that chemical could be the key to relief for millions of people. The thinking that leads to such habitual reactions can also be treated more efficiently with therapy.
The new findings may be able to bring about successful new treatment, either in the form of behavioral modification therapy or through medication. Shutting off those endocannabinoid receptors could be the key to freedom from addiction and OCD. In the meantime, the promising research will continue.
If you’re trapped in habitual behaviors or addiction and want to know more about treatment options, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website at www.pfeifferphd.com.