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Dr Kristin Hillman and Prof David Bilkey, both of the psychology department, have found that neurons in a specific region of the frontal cortex, called the anterior cingulate cortex, become active during decisions involving competitive effort.
The researchers discovered neurons in this region appear to store information on whether a course of action demands competition, and crucially, whether it is "worth it", to achieve an end reward.
The researchers have provided a first glimpse into the competitive brain, in a study appearing online today in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Their study is the first to examine how competitive behaviour is encoded by neurons in the rat brain and represents a pioneering move into understanding the brain mechanisms that produce competitive, ambitious behaviour.
"In theory, it also gives us a glimpse into what might be going on in our own brains, whether we are highly competitive Olympic athletes or just vying for the last treadmill at the gym," Dr Hillman says.
"For me it's quite exciting. It's really quite a new field of research.
"New Zealand and Otago [University] have a really good environment for enabling people to test out these 'out there ideas', as it were."
The researchers used a novel experimental set-up for rats which mimics cost-benefit decisions humans face every day: whether to opt to gain a small but easily achievable reward, or to seek a potentially greater reward which also involved competing against a peer.
They found, in foraging rats, certain cortical neurons became more active when such competitive scenarios were considered and pursued.
When facing a highly motivated or physically dominant competitor, a rat's neural activity patterns changed markedly.
"The resulting signal could be important for both driving competitive behaviour and also steering us away from risky situations where, although the reward might be large, the potential cost is too high."
The research was funded by the Marsden Fund.