Stimulating this part of the brain causes ‘uncontrollable urge to laugh’

Interestingly, electrically stimulating the cingulum bundle also seems to reduce anxiety.

Pixabay
  • In a study of epilepsy patients undergoing electrical stimulation brain mapping, scientists discovered that the stimulation of the cingulum bundle reliably produced laughter, smiles and calm feelings.
  • The findings could someday help scientists develop better treatments for anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
  • One obstacle preventing this kind of treatment from becoming accessible is that it requires invasive surgery, though improved technology could someday change that.

Electrically stimulating a certain part of the brain seems to reliably produce laughter, smiles and calm feelings, according to a new study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

It's known that stimulating certain parts of the brain can cause laughter, but this is the first time scientists have identified one that seems to also reduce anxiety when stimulated. The findings could lead to better treatments for anxiety, depression and chronic pain.

The discovery comes from a research team, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that was studying epilepsy patients undergoing electrical stimulation brain mapping, a process in which tiny electrodes are placed onto the brain. These electrodes can stimulate various regions of the brain to provide information about the neural source of seizures.

In observing a 23-year-old female patient, the team observed that stimulating the cingulum bundle — a white matter tract that connects various brain regions — consistently caused her to laugh uncontrollably, smile and feel calm and relaxed, according to the NIH Director's Blog. To measure her mood more objectively, the researchers asked her to evaluate a set of facial expressions as happy, sad or neutral. She rated faces as happier when undergoing electrical stimulation, a sign that suggests she was in a better mood. The team also measured her cognitive abilities at the time, finding that electrical stimulation didn't seem to be interfering with cognition.

To bolster the findings, the team examined two other epilepsy patients, who were also undergoing brain mapping for treatment, and found that stimulating the cingulum bundle again triggered laughter, smiles and calm feelings.

​Why does this part of the brain cause laughter and calm feelings?

It's too early to tell, but study co-author Jon T. Willie told the NIH Director's Blog that it might have something to do with the tract's role as an intermediary between other brain regions — he likened it to "a super highway with lots of on and off ramps" and suspects it "lies at a key intersection, providing access to various brain networks regulating mood, emotion, and social interaction."

​How could this kind of stimulation be used?

It's possible this kind of electrical stimulation could be used to improve treatments for anxiety, depression and chronic pain. Interestingly, stimulation could also help people have a more pleasant experience during neurosurgeries where patients must stay awake — the team actually did this with the 23-year-old patient, finding it provided her immediate relief each time she became stressed.

However, it's important to note that the kind of therapy described in the study requires invasive surgery. That's because it involves an electrocorticogram (ECoG), which, unlike a electroencephalogram (EEG) where electrodes are placed onto the scalp, involves opening the skull to place electrodes directly onto the brain. As such, it's unlikely that these kinds of treatments will soon be readily available options for people suffering from, say, generalized anxiety disorder. But as technology improves it's possible we might see similar therapies offered through less invasive means.

The world and workforce need wisdom. Why don’t universities teach it?

Universities claim to prepare students for the world. How many actually do it?

Photo: Take A Pix Media / Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Many university mission statements do not live up to their promise, writes Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, a university designed to develop intellect over content memorization.
  • The core competencies that students need for success—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding, for example—should be intentionally taught, not left to chance.
  • These competencies can be summed up with one word: wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations.
Keep reading Show less

What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

Keep reading Show less

From zero to hero in 18 years: How SpaceX became a nation-state

SpaceX's momentous Crew Dragon launch is a sign of things to come for the space industry, and humanity's future.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk celebrates after the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Earlier in the day NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off an inaugural flight and will be the first people since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States.

Photo:Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • SpaceX was founded in 2002 and was an industry joke for many years. Eighteen years later, it is the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station.
  • Today, SpaceX's Crew Dragon launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. The journey will take about 19 hours.
  • Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, looks at SpaceX's journey from startup to a commercial space company with the operating power of a nation-state.
Keep reading Show less

Six-month-olds recognize (and like) when they’re being imitated

A new study may help us better understand how children build social cognition through caregiver interaction.

Personal Growth
  • Scientists speculate imitation helps develop social cognition in babies.
  • A new study out of Lund University shows that six-month-olds look and smile more at imitating adults.
  • Researchers hope the data will spur future studies to discover what role caregiver imitation plays in social cognition development.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…