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Neuroscience Pinpoints How the Brain Makes and Breaks Habits

Endocannabinoids and the OFC drive the brain's ability to make and break habits.

Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock
Source: Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock

Every day, millions of people navigate the minefields and booby traps of decision-making while trying to break bad habits and reinforce healthier lifestyle choices. Breaking old habits requires being able to shift from reflexive behaviors to consciously making decisions based on goal-directed actions—or creating new habits—that lead to more positive outcomes.

The inability to fluidly shift between goal-directed behavior and habitual behavior has broad implications for a wide range of neuropsychiatric disorders that are associated with impaired decision-making. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and many forms of addiction.

Endocannabinoids (Your Body's Self-Produced Cannabis) Drive Habit Formation

How does the brain control the fundamental process of making or breaking habits and shift from habitual actions to goal-directed actions? This week, a groundbreaking new study pinpoints an endogenous (self-made) cannabinoid-based neural mechanism that reduces the flow of information to the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). This process is directly linked to the formation of both good and bad habits.

The OFC is a brain area known to participate in goal-directed actions by supplying information about the consequences, risks, and rewards of our actions by assigning outcome values to behaviors. Endocannabinoids are also referred to as anandamide. The root of this word, ananda, comes from sanskrit and means "bliss or rapture."

The May 2016 study, “Endocannabinoid Modulation of Orbitostriatal Circuits Gates Habit Formation,” appears in the journal Neuron.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in green.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This study was a collaboration between scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, the University of California at San Diego, and the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal. The researchers report that making and breaking habits is directly linked to endocannabinoids and how CB-1 cannabinoid receptors control the level of activity in the OFC.

In a statement, Christina Gremel, lead author of this study and assistant professor of Psychology at the University of California in San Diego, said,

"Our results suggest that alterations in the brain's endogenous endocannabinoid neuromodulatory system could be blocking the brain's capacity to "break habits" as observed in disorders that affect switching between goal-directed and habitual behaviors. In other words, endocannabinoids act as a brake in the OFC, allowing for habit formation."

Goal-Directed Behavior Vs. Habitual Behavior

For this study, the researchers trained individual mice to make the exact same actions in either a goal-directed or habitual manner. David Lovinger, a senior investigator and chief at NIAAA/NIH, explained in a statement,

"Mice were trained to perform the same action in 2 different environments for the same food reward, but under different action requirements that differentially biased the animal toward the development of goal-directed versus habitual actions. This newly developed procedure allowed us to probe the brain mechanisms involved in shifting action strategies."

Reducing activity in the neurons of the OFC has long been thought to underlie habit formation. Additionally, endocannabinoids have been known to reduce the activity of neurons. By connecting the dots, the researchers hypothesized that endocannabinoids might be playing a key role in habit formation ... it turns out their educated guess was correct. When the team selectively deleted a particular CB-1 endocannabinoid receptor from the OFC projection neurons—they observed that mice who were lacking these receptors did not form habits.

Conclusions: Endocannabinoids Fuel Habit Formation and 'Runner’s High'

Rui Costa, principal investigator at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, concluded, "Based on our findings, we could possibly restore this balance between action strategies by targeting the brain's endocannabinoid system; thereby breaking habitual control over behavior and alleviating suffering in disorders involving these processes."

Over a decade ago, when I published The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, endocannabinoids were just being noted for their ability to create runner’s high more than endorphins (your body’s own morphine). As part of the habit formation required to exercise regularly, I argued that aerobic exercise triggers the production of endocannabinoids and reinforces the conditioned response that "sweat = bliss" by locking into CB-1 receptors.

My hypothesis was that endocannabinoids reinforced the habit formation needed to stick with an exercise regimen and that this conditioned response would cause people to seek breaking a sweat, as opposed to avoiding it. On p. 139 I wrote,

"Endocannabinoids are the most potent neurochemical for creating the biology of bliss when you exercise. Endocannabinoids are not a household word yet, but I guarantee that by the end of the decade they will be as commonly known as serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol. Cannabinoids are directly linked to feelings of pleasure and have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Cannabinoids are released when you break a sweat; they linger in your system during and after the process. They are linked to neurogenesis, improved mood, bone density, and fine motor-control improvement in endogenous doses. The receptors in the brain for cannabinoids are called CB-1 and they are everywhere . . . The feelings of contentment and well-being you experience after a workout occur because your brain is soaking in a cannabinoid cocoon.”

It’s useful to have cutting-edge neuroscience pinpoint the exact brain mechanisms that lead to the formation of habits. These findings also show us how endocannabinoid-mediated attenuation is key to controlling habitual behaviors, such as working out regularly. Stay tuned for more on this exciting topic!

To read more on endocannabinoids and the OFC, check out my previous Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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