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Has there been any research proving, disproving, or exploring the concept of conscious activation of specific brain regions?

To elaborate on this:

I've read that performing processing tasks causes the brain to reinforce that type/kind of processing or thinking. For example, visualizing performing a task fires the same neurons as actually performing the task.

Thus, has there been research into the idea that mental models and biofeedback mechanisms can result in conscious control over the activation of particular brain regions?

For example, with biofeedback and practice, can I consciously, measurably, and significantly increase activity (blood flow, electrical activity, etc) in the frontal lobe?

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Search pubmed for "neurofeedback" to get an impressing list of publications concerning your question: –  H.Muster Jun 16 '12 at 9:56
@benCole: of course, what do you think meditation is all about - look up the science of meditation. It actually increases brain tissue and increases blood to the deeper levels of the brain. –  Greg McNulty Dec 23 '12 at 2:13

3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Yes! Recent work using fMRI has shown that subjects can indeed control localized brain regions through practice [1]. Some regions that have been tested include the rostal ACC [2] responsible for pain perception, PPA responsible for representing locations, and FFA responsible for representing faces. Repeated experiments seem to suggest the phenomenon is robust, and that the technique may not be particular to regulating any specific brain region but could work on many brain regions given the proper experimental design.

Typically, these experiments work by utilizing real-time fMRI, a technique that allows real-time biofeedback of brain activation to be presented to a subject in an fMRI scanner. In these experiments, a subject may specifically be instructed to "up-regulate" or "down-regulate" activation in a brain region by performing a specific task. For instance, a subject can "up-regulate" activation in the fusiform face area (FFA) by mentally picturing faces. Consequently, feedback is presented to the subject (e.g., as a 'thermometer') indicating level of activation of the FFA.

Interestingly, subjects become better at up-regulating or down-regulating activation in specific brain regions by attending to feedback-- even moreso than subjects who do not receive biofeedback. This is reflected both in the fMRI images and subjective reports from the subjects. This technique has potential implications for rehabilitation, e.g. giving chronic pain patients another tool to cope with their disorder.

The technique has even been used to up-regulate abstract, distributed patterns across the brain. For instance, Stephen LaConte and colleagues have used a machine learning technique called support-vector machines to classify abstract patterns such as 'craving' or 'not craving', represented as a distributed pattern of brain activity. Using real-time fMRI, smokers have been able to learn to control their cravings through instruction and biofeedback.

I believe similar findings have been shown using EEG as well, though I am not as familiar with the literature. However, there is evidence that subjects using an EEG brain-computer interface to control an on-screen keyboard become better with practice, which suggests that they are able to manipulate their brain patterns in order to perform the task.


  1. de Charms et al. (2004). Learned regulation of spatially localized brain activation using real-time fMRI. NeuroImage, 21, 436-443. Retrieved from

  2. de Charms et al. (2005). Control over brain activation and pain learned by using real-time functional MRI. PNAS, 102, 18626–18631. Retrieved from

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Not only can brain activation be controlled though consciousness (which is expected under most reductionist accounts of the mind-brain problem) and measured in the lab (as @Jeff's answer showed) but it can actually be used as an interface!

Erik Ramsey is locked-in syndrome patient and is incapable of movement apart from his eyes. However, he has control of his brain enough to be distinguished by electrodes implanted into his cerebral cortex (Guenther, 2009). Although the sensors were implanted in the motor-area responsible for speech (which you would expect typical inviduals to have control over, since they can speak), the understanding of how to decode this is not full. Thus, the patient had to train in order to adapt to the system:

Accuracy of the volunteer's vowel productions with the synthesizer improved quickly with practice, with a 25% improvement in average hit rate (from 45% to 70%) and 46% decrease in average endpoint error from the first to the last block of a three-vowel task.

In a much more dramatic experiment, Adrian Owen has used brain imaging techniques as means of communicating with vegetative-state patients. It is known that visualizing playing-tennis and walking around the house produce very distinct (to an fMRI) activation in the brain. So owed used that capability to allow a vegetative-state patient to answer yes-or-no questions. He asked the patient to imagine playing tennis for yes, navigating the house for no (Monti et al., 2010).

Of course, this is not an answer to the exact question you asked, but by thinking about these activities the patient is effective the blood flow in his brain significantly enough to be measured by fMRI and used as a form of communication. Of course, some do raise concerns over the philosophical questions related to consciousness in these patients, to better understand consciousness in general, take a look at:

What are current neuronal explanations and models of 'consciousness'?


Guenther, F.H., Brumberg, J.S., Wright, E.J., Nieto-Castanon, A., Tourville, J.A., Panko, M., Law, R., Siebert, S.A., Bartels, J.L., Andreasen, D.S., Ehirim, P., Mao, H., & Kennedy, P.R. (2009). A wireless brain-machine interface for real-time speech synthesis. PLoS ONE, 4(12)

Monti MM, Vanhaudenhuyse A, Coleman MR, Boly M, Pickard JD, Tshibanda L, Owen AM, & Laureys S. (2010). Willful modulation of brain activity in disorders of consciousness. New England Journal of Medicine, 362(7):579-89.

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A minor addition to Jeff:

There are ongoing researchs on controlling brain's response (e.g amygdala) to negative situations and using this techniques for psychiatric interventions (e.g. for anxiety disorders, depression). [1]

There are different possibilities for learning adaptive coping strategies with simple, stuctured biofeedback training setups. But scaling/portability issues about equipments using for brain response/training studies have not yet solved.


  1. Stanford study suggests girls can 'rewire' brains to ward off depression
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