Understanding the ‘little brain’ could be key to treating autism, addiction

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Image credit: Matt York/AP

For about two centuries the scientific community believed the cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”), which contains approximately half of the brain’s neurons, was dedicated solely to the control of movement. In recent decades, however, the tide has started to turn, as researchers have revealed details of the structure’s role in cognition, emotional processing and social behavior.

Although many of these findings suggested the cerebellum played an important part both in reward-related and social behavior, a clear neural mechanism to explain this link was lacking. New research, published this week [January 18] in Science, demonstrates that a pathway directly tying the cerebellum to the ventral tegmental area (VTA)—one of the brain’s key pleasure centers—can control these two processes. “This work helps lay out the circuitry connecting the cerebellum to social and reward processing,” says Julie Fiez, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh.

Related article:  Adults with autism are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety

Further probing the cerebellum–VTA circuit could one day help scientists treat various disorders, [researcher Kamran] Khodakhah says. This circuit might be manipulated—using techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation or deep-brain stimulation—in individuals with addiction or autism. But more research is necessary before such interventions become reality—and for now, Khodakhah’s team plans to test some of these methods in mice.

Read full, original post: The Cerebellum Is Your “Little Brain”—and It Does Some Pretty Big Things

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