Motivation gets many people up and out of bed every morning. But sometimes we might need an extra push to go about the myriad tasks we have to accomplish every day. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness our motivation, and use it when we need it most? Scientists from Duke University developed a brain imaging strategy, which may one day let us do just that.

The technique, described in the journal Neuron, uses neurofeedback, which is essentially a readout of a person’s brain activity. In this instance, the researchers investigated the ventral tegmental area of the brain, which deals with motivation.

Neurofeedback normally uses electroencephalography to monitor electrical activity in the brain with electrodes attached to the scalp. However, that only gives a rough estimate of what is happening in the brain.

This new technique uses functional MRI, which measures changes in blood oxygen levels, to more accurately measure specific areas of the brain. The Duke team monitored levels of activity in real time and, in a first, showed participants inside the machine a readout of their brain activity that appeared like a thermometer, allowing them to follow along.

The researchers brought together 73 participants for the experiment, and asked them to try to motivate themselves during 20-second intervals without showing them the thermometer. None of the participants could activate the brain’s motivation center this way.

Next, the researchers turned on the thermometer display and asked the participants to think of motivating thoughts, such as crossing the finish line after a marathon or hearing someone cheering them on. Some thermometers showed different readings than others, however. One group saw the blood oxygen levels in their ventral tegmental area updated in real time. Another saw randomized levels that all hovered around zero. A third group saw the blood oxygen levels of their nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain that also deals with motivation.

The participants who saw accurate brain activity levels were able to figure out which motivational techniques worked and which did not, and could activate their motivation centers when asked to do so. This group’s brain activity was higher than that of the control group, who only saw randomized or false feedback. The participants were even able to elevate their motivation levels at will after the thermometer was removed.

“These methods show a direct route for manipulating brain networks centrally involved in healthy brain function and daily behavior,” said the study senior investigator R. Alison Adcock, associate director of Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, in a press release.

The researchers also noticed that both the learning- and rewards-related sections of the brain were active during the experiment, at least for a short time, which suggests the mind changes its activity all over when it receives neurofeedback.

Though the study is reportedly the first of its kind, the researchers hope it could help people overcome depression and attention problems. The group is currently preparing more experiments to see if neurofeedback can drive changes in behavior.

Source: MacInnes J, Dickerson K, Chen N, Adcock R. Cognitive Neurostimulation: Learning to Volitionally Sustain Ventral Tegmental Area Activation. Neuron. 2016.