Self-regulation learning as active inference: dynamic causal modeling of an fMRI neurofeedback task

Front Neurosci. 2023 Aug 15:17:1212549. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2023.1212549. eCollection 2023.


Introduction: Learning to self-regulate brain activity by neurofeedback has been shown to lead to changes in the brain and behavior, with beneficial clinical and non-clinical outcomes. Neurofeedback uses a brain-computer interface to guide participants to change some feature of their brain activity. However, the neural mechanism of self-regulation learning remains unclear, with only 50% of the participants succeeding in achieving it. To bridge this knowledge gap, our study delves into the neural mechanisms of self-regulation learning via neurofeedback and investigates the brain processes associated with successful brain self-regulation.

Methods: We study the neural underpinnings of self-regulation learning by employing dynamical causal modeling (DCM) in conjunction with real-time functional MRI data. The study involved a cohort of 18 participants undergoing neurofeedback training targeting the supplementary motor area. A critical focus was the comparison between top-down hierarchical connectivity models proposed by Active Inference and alternative bottom-up connectivity models like reinforcement learning.

Results: Our analysis revealed a crucial distinction in brain connectivity patterns between successful and non-successful learners. Particularly, successful learners evinced a significantly stronger top-down effective connectivity towards the target area implicated in self-regulation. This heightened top-down network engagement closely resembles the patterns observed in goal-oriented and cognitive control studies, shedding light on the intricate cognitive processes intertwined with self-regulation learning.

Discussion: The findings from our investigation underscore the significance of cognitive mechanisms in the process of self-regulation learning through neurofeedback. The observed stronger top-down effective connectivity in successful learners indicates the involvement of hierarchical cognitive control, which aligns with the tenets of Active Inference. This study contributes to a deeper understanding of the neural dynamics behind successful self-regulation learning and provides insights into the potential cognitive architecture underpinning this process.

Keywords: Active Inference; brain-computer interface; fMRI; neurofeedback; self-regulation learning.