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December 17, 2020

Wouldn't mind a cup of coffee. But is it worth all the effort?

Neuroscientists at Emory University have provided clear visual evidence that the brain's ventral striatum kicks in during decision-making to weigh the costs vs. benefits of making a physical effort. What could be the ultimate impacts of what they've learned?

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

What's my motivation?

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

I sure could go for another coffee. (Sound effect: echoey inner voice, contemplating) But there's none left. I'd have to make a new batch -- that's a lotta work. Do I really want coffee?

(Sound effect: normal voice) Scientists tell us there's a place deep inside the brain -- the Ventral Striatum -- [ven-trəl strī-ˈā-təm] that activates to help us make cost/benefit decisions: like, "should I pay more for next-day delivery?" But strangely, when weighing the cost versus benefit of making a physical effort -- "do I really want to get up and make coffee" -- Brain imaging studies never showed the Ventral Striatum kicking in. A mystery.

Now scientists at Emory University have found a way to monitor activity in the Ventral Striatum as study participants carried out assigned tasks involving reward and effort (Sound effect: video game music) -- put into almost a videogame format.

Result: the first clear visual evidence that two sub-areas of the Ventral Striatum are in fact involved in decisions about making a physical effort.

Now that they can measure the brain activity for assigned tasks, the team hopes to measure what happens when we do things because we want to, in real-life situations.

Understanding the brain mechanisms underlying motivation could help us lead to new ways to treat depression, schizophrenia, and PTSD.

And I see that nobody has made coffee.

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