For the longest time, serotonin and dopamine have been linked to pleasure and reward. In a pioneer study done by researchers from University College London, findings published in “Neuron” show that these two neuromodulators may be connected to general cognition. This is essentially shaping how people view the world and act on those views.
Researchers simultaneously and continuously monitored serotonin and dopamine in human brains. While the two neuromodulators have been studied extensively in animals, it is still challenging for researchers to separate the reinforcement animals receive from the decision-making. This is because animals need to be trained in order to perform tasks that involve decision-making. Animals are given reinforcements after completing tasks, a similar approach to Pavlov’s conditioning. Dan Bang, lead author of the study and a neuroscientist at the University College London, states that animals are limited models of the behaviors and thoughts that humans possess.
To study serotonin and dopamine signaling in people, the research team identified five participants who were scheduled to have brain surgery for treatment of either essential tremors or Parkinson’s disease. The volunteers consented to having their neurochemicals observed during the surgery. In these operations, surgeons operate while the patient is awake, and probes are used to measure brain activity for safety.
Read Montague, research team leader and a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, succeeded in placing a microelectrode into the putamen of one of the participants and into the caudate nucleus of the remaining volunteers. The putamen and caudate nucleus structures are involved in reward, learning and movement, and are regions of the striatum.
The research team then administered tasks to each participant during the surgery. Using the microelectrode, the researchers continuously measured serotonin and dopamine levels in the putamen or caudate nucleus, recording 10 measurements per second. This is a major improvement as researchers have never been able to observe these neurotransmitters at such relative biological speeds. Additionally, researchers usually use less-invasive techniques such as fMRI or PET scanning that take one measurement each minute to measure these neuromodulators.
In three of the four volunteers whose microelectrodes were placed in the caudate nucleus, scientists found that serotonin levels were connected to uncertainty around perceptions. The more difficult a task was, the more uncertain the outcome was. While dopamine has been observed to have an inverse relationship with serotonin in animal and human studies done in the past, this study discovered that variations of dopamine levels in the caudate nucleus didn’t track consistently with perceptual uncertainty.
Researchers also discovered concrete evidence in the putamen that supports the opposing roles for serotonin and dopamine with regard to action. Researchers noticed that an increase in dopamine was met with a corresponding decrease in serotonin, which was linked to the person’s choice to act.
Study coauthor Ken Kishida, also a neuroscientist at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, says that these study results suggest that apart from being reward chemicals, serotonin and dopamine may contribute to perception more generally, connecting how we view the world and how these views influence our decisions.
These findings could have major implications in the biomedical sector, and one interesting company you should watch is 180 Life Sciences Corp. The company focuses on developing novel drugs that address unfulfilled needs in fibrosis, inflammatory diseases and pain.
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