Changing Bad Habits By Manipulating Brain Circuitry

It turns out that bad habits are actually caused by the way our brains are circuited. Scientists have been carrying out experiments to further understand this and may develop treatment in the future to help people get rid of their habits. However, is this really the best solution to our bad habits?

From biting nails to procrastinating, everyone has bad habits. And while everyone is  aware that these habits are only harmful, they are hard to give up.

It turns out that bad habits are actually formed because of certain neurons and the brain’s circuitry. Scientists have performed tests on mice to better understand the cause of habit formation. Although more work is needed to fully understand the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates cognitive, behavioral and emotional functioning, there may be potential treatments for certain bad habits in the future. But should scientists really modify the circuitry of our brains just to break bad habits?

Researchers recently explored the dorsolateral striatum, the area of the brain connected with repetitive stimulus-response behavior, to recognize the neurons that control the brain circuits which cause habit development.

Photo Credit: (Flickr/NICHD)
Photo Credit: (Flickr/NICHD)


Scientists have discovered that the dorsolateral striatum is responsible for habit development. They are performing experiments to possibly provide effective treatment for bad habits in the future.

In this experiment, scientists used mice to further understand two types of brain cells: fast-spiking interneurons (FSIs), which sustain activity in response to input,  and brain cells that fire at each other by using a “go” pathway that stimulates action and a “stop” pathway that blocks action. Although FSIs only make up about one percent of the neurons in the brain, they are connected to ninety five percent of the stop and go pathways, according to Medical New Today.

The scientists trained mice to press a lever to receive a sugar pellet. The mice were either trained to show goal-directed behavior, where they press the lever less when no sugar pellets come out, or a strong sugar habit, where the mice continue to press the lever even after no sugar pellets stopped coming out.

From their experiments, they found that decreasing FSI activity stopped habit formation in mice. The scientists used a technique called “chemogenetics” that lowered the FSI activity, which caused the mice to press the lever less. The habit mice’s go signal fired first while the goal-directed mice’s stop signal fired first. Researchers were eventually able to predict whether the mice were going to take part in habitual behavior, based on the firing of the stop and go signals.

According to Mental Floss, the changes in the stop and go neurons were consistent throughout an entire region of the brain, which may be the reason why people who have one addiction may be more likely to have another one.

The goal of this study was to understand FSIs and stop and go signals contributing to habit development. Scientists continue to study and learn more about this part of the brain and how it affects humans, in hopes for possible treatments for individuals who suffer from bad habits.

Of course, there is no practical use of a treatment to stop someone from a habit such as biting their nails. However, in individuals who suffer from a bad habit such as substance abuse, using the findings from this study and future studies to create treatments could be considered.

Changing someone’s brain may seem like a potential method to conquer addictions and other compulsive behaviors. At first glance, this seems like a wonderful solution if scientists are willing to put more effort in experimenting and creating a solution.

This method of treatment would have many potential risks associated with it. Like for many treatments, sometimes the side effects can be worse than what the treatment is for.

Moreover, because the brain is such an important part of the body, damage to it could have severe consequences. The question is, what is the practicality of by altering brain circuitry to deal with bad habits?

Sophomore Alice Cheng is skeptical about the viability of potential procedure or treatment for people with bad habits.

“If you’re lucky, then everything will be fine, but in many cases, you need to experiment multiple times before something actually works,” Cheng says. “I think it is a good idea because it has a more direct approach to helping people, but I would only use this treatment if I had a very extreme bad habit, where I would have nothing to lose.”

Cheng said that treating bad habits by altering brain circuitry seems like something that would be a useful tool to help individuals if there was a way completely clear of risk. However, this is not yet possible, and scientists still need to conduct a lot of studies and experiments to further analyze the solutions to bad habits.

There is potential for altering of brain circuitry to have a huge impact on individuals who suffer from severe bad habits, but there is also uncertainty as to whether or not treatments will be effective. In the future, if treatment does become available, it is important to understand both the benefits and drawbacks of it.