Human Brain ScanEnhancing the effects of the brain chemical dopamine seems to influence how people make life choices by affecting expectations of pleasure. Atleast this is what study experts from the University College London Institute of Neurology claim.

This study is known to confirm a crucial role of dopamine in how human expectations are formed and how people make difficult decisions. Moreover, it may perhaps contribute to an understanding of how pleasure expectation can go awry, for instance in drug addiction.

Dopamine is believed to be a neurotransmitter produced in several areas of the brain that is found in a wide variety of animals. In addition, its role in reward learning and reward-seeking behaviour appears to be well recognized by animal studies. However, in humans its role seems to be less identified.

Lead author Dr Tali Sharot, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, said that, “Humans make much more complex decisions than other animals – such as which job to take, where to go on holiday, whether to start a family – and we wanted to understand the role of dopamine in making these types of decisions. Our results indicate that when we consider alternative options when making real-life decisions, dopamine has a role in signaling the expected pleasure from those possible future events. We then use that signal to make our choices.

For the purpose of the study, Dr Tamara Shiner and Professor Ray Dolan were believed to have analyzed and estimated pleasure of potential events before and after the administration of a drug called L-DOPA. Apparently, this drug is known to improve dopamine function in the brain and is commonly used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Moreover, the 61 study participants were asked to rate their expectations of happiness if they were to holiday at each of 80 destinations, from Thailand to Greece. Later, they were provided with L-DOPA or a placebo and asked to imagine holidaying in those destinations.

Furthermore, the subsequent day participants had to select between a series of paired destinations that they had originally assigned with equal ratings. For example, one member of the pair appears to have imagined under L-DOPA the day before and the other under placebo. Finally, the experts were observed to have rated the full set of 80 destinations again.

The findings of the study revealed that ratings for specific destinations seem to have increased after they were imagined under L-DOPA’s influence. More so, that raise also appears to have affected the participants’ selections the following day.

Dr Sharot further said that, “We had reason to believe that dopamine would enhance expectations of pleasure in humans, but were surprised at the strength of this effect. The enhancement lasted at least 24 hours and was evident in almost 80 per cent of the subjects.”

This study is known to be built on earlier work by Dr Sharot and colleagues, who made use of brain imaging as participants imagined holiday destinations. An area of the brain called the striatum seems to have tracked expectations.

In addition, the scientists found that they may be able to take that signal and predict what the participants would choose. The authors believed this was dopamine at work and thus seem to have set up this study to further explore its role.

The findings of the study have been published in the journal, Current Biology.