Does Your Brain Have a "Happiness Zone"?
A recent study provided new insight into the human brain. Scientists seem to have found a “happiness zone” in the brain that responds to electrical stimulation. This discovery opens the door to several treatment possibilities for a variety of pathologies.
The study began as a brain mapping project using electrical stimulation on patients with epilepsy. Researchers realized that stimulating the cingulum bundle always produced laughter or smiles in their subjects. It also seemed to trigger feelings of wellbeing, pleasure, and calm.
Scientists already knew that stimulating certain parts of the brain can trigger the uncontrollable urge to laugh. However, this is the first time they’ve been able to identify one of them. They also discovered that stimulating that area of the brain can significantly reduce anxiety.
The team of neuroscientists at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia were studying patients with epilepsy by using small electrodes to electrically stimulate certain parts of their brains. Their goal was to find information about the source of the patients’ seizures.
They were caught completely by surprise when they stimulated the cingulum bundle (a tract of white matter that connects different regions of the brain to one another) of one of the subjects’ brains and saw that they began to laugh uncontrollably. A while after, the subject stated that they felt relaxed and calm.
Then, they decided to show the subject a series of facial expressions. They found that when the cingulum bundle was being stimulated, the patient rated the facial expressions higher on the happiness scale. That is an indicator that the patient was in a better mood.
They also measured the patient’s cognition level while they stimulated the cingulum bundle. In this regard, the subject completed memory, attention, and language tests. Researchers didn’t see any measurable difference in cognition during the electrical stimulation, which means that it doesn’t appear to interfere at all with cognition.
The scientists also tested the rest of the subjects, who had the same responses to the electrical stimulation. They all reported a sense of calm and laughed uncontrollably.
Why does this area of the brain affect mood?
The cingulum bundle is located below the cortex and curved around the middle brain. The upper frontal area is where this happiness zone is located. This is a part of the brain where many different brain regions related to complex emotions connect to each other.
The white matter that crosses the cingulum bundle connects different lobes of the brain. When you stimulate the cingulum bundle, other networks that extend into different parts of the brain could also be affected. In other words, it seems to be an intermediary to other areas of the brain.
Jon T. Willie, one of the scientists on the team, compares it to a superhighway with a lot of on and off ramps. The team believes that they might have found an access point to different networks that regulate mood, social interaction, and emotions.
What does this mean for the future?
One of the most exciting possibilities is that this cingulum bundle electrical stimulation could be used to treat anxiety, depression, or even chronic pain.
Another possibility is that this technique could be used to provide a more pleasant experience for patients during neurosurgeries that require them to stay awake.
The general public will have to wait because, at the moment, this treatment requires major, invasive surgery. The electrodes have to be placed directly on the brain, which means that you’d have to undergo risky invasive surgery.
Even so, this is a very important discovery that brings us one step closer to understanding the human brain. Hopefully, scientists can use this new information to improve or substitute mood-related interventions in the future.