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Mental Health Center

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Brain Region May Act as 'Sixth' Sense

New Evidence of the Brain's Early Warning System for Danger

WebMD Health News

Feb. 17, 2005 -- Part of the brain may be able to sense danger and provide early warnings to help humans escape, according to a study that provides new evidence of the brain's "sixth sense."

In the study, researchers found that a region in the brain known as the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) may monitor subtle changes in the environment -- even without people being aware of it -- and use this information to adjust behavior.

Previous studies have suggested that activity in the ACC, which is located in the front of the brain, increases when people have to make a difficult decision or after they make a mistake.

"But now we find that this brain region can actually learn to recognize when you might make a mistake, even before a difficult decision has to be made," says researcher Joshua Brown, PhD, a research associate in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, in a news release. "So the ACC appears to act as an early warning system; it learns to warn us in advance when our behavior might lead to a negative outcome, so that we can be more careful and avoid making a mistake."

Researchers say the ACC has been studied intensely in recent years because it plays an important role in the brain's processing of complex and challenging tasks.

In this study, researchers looked at whether the role of the ACC goes beyond detecting errors or a state of conflict to detecting the likelihood of making an error. To test this theory, researchers conducted an experiment that required healthy young people to respond to a series of cues on a computer screen.

The participants had to quickly push one of two buttons on a keyboard depending on the direction of an arrow flashed on the screen. To simulate conflict, researchers occasionally inserted a second, larger blue arrow that required the participants to switch gears and push the opposite button.

According to the researchers the idea was that you eventually get to the point where you have competing tendencies -- to push the right or left buttons -- both are active in the brain at the same time, which creates conflict.

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