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Brain Structure May Be Root of Apathy

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A new brain study by the neuroscientists at Oxford has revealed a very interesting connection between apathy and brain structure. The results of their study seem to suggest that the reasons why some people typically said to be lazy are due to the biology of their brain and not attitude.

This study carried out by a team of neuroscientists at Oxford is funded by The Wellcome Trust. As a part of the study the researchers studied young people to see if there were any differences in the brains of those who were motivated compared to those who were apathetic.

Masud Husain, Professor of Neurology and Cognitive Neuroscience remarked that it is known that in certain cases people can become pathologically apathetic, say after a stroke or with Alzheimer’s disease. Many of these patients can be physically capable and not depressed, but they can become so demotivated that they don't care about caring for themselves. In this study, the researchers studied healthy people with the aim to find out if there are any significant differences in their brains that could shed light on apathy.

Forty healthy volunteers were asked to complete a questionnaire and were then scored on how motivated they were. As a part of the study, they were then made to play a game in which they were given rewards – each needed different level of physical effort to win the reward. It was not surprising to find that offers with high rewards that needed low effort were more popular, while low rewards requiring high effort were less popular.

The volunteers were made to play the game in an MRI machine, so that the researchers could study their brains. In the process of studying the brain, a surprising finding emerged. It is seen that apathetic people are typically less likely to accept effortful offers; however, it was found that one area of their brains actually showed more activity than in motivated individuals. The pre-motor cortex is a major area involved in taking actions and it becomes active just before those areas of the brain that control our movement. It is a paradox that in more apathetic people it was more active when they chose to take an offer than it was in motivated people.

Husain says that it was expected that that area would be less active as apathetic people were less likely to accept effortful choices but just the opposite was found. The likely reason could be that their brain structure is less efficient, so it’s more of an effort for apathetic people to turn decisions into actions. Brain scanning techniques were employed to find that connections in the front part of the brains of apathetic people are less effective. Typically, the brain uses around a fifth of the energy one burns each day. Since, it takes more energy to plan an action; it becomes more costly for apathetic people to make actions.

Dr. Raliza Stoyanova, Senior Portfolio Developer in the Neuroscience and Mental Health team at the Wellcome Trust remarked that lack of motivation to act towards achieving even simple goals is a characteristic of some brain disorders but it also varies naturally within the population. The biological basis of such apathy is not well known. This study shares new insights, showing us that the brain systems involved in motivation and preparing for action are important components.

This is the first time a biological basis for apathy in healthy people has been found. It can't be said that it account for apathy in everyone but it can give us more information about the brain processes underlying normal motivation, and aid in designing treatment for those pathological conditions of extreme apathy.

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