Keep it Real TV Episode 51

Video by Dr. Chad Larson


In episode 51 of his video series, Dr. Larson discusses: 

Dr. Larson recently gave a lecture at a medical conference discussing the importance of dopamine in the brain. To summarize his lecture in a three-part Keep it Real series, he first explained that dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for developing the frontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for executive and higher-order decision making. The prefrontal cortex, which was created by the old part of the brain stretching into the neocortex through dopamine is what separates us from primates. Our understanding of dopamine has grown from the early 1950s until now. When it was first evaluated, little was understood about its importance. But, as technology and brain understanding expand, science began to understand how critical dopamine is.

Dopamine imbalances are common and manifest in different ways. When Dr. Larson was looking into the question of "What motivates people?" he began to examine what is happening biochemically that separates those who are motivated and follow through with goals from those who don't. He asked the question "Why do some people achieve their goals while others give up and don't work hard to follow through?". A researcher from the University of Connecticut was the first to examine what motivates people. In the 1990s, researchers created something called the "T-maze". The T-maze was a long corridor that they used to observe mice under different conditions.

The mice were held in the holding area, and when they opened up the corridor, the mice were able to make decisions about where they want to go. When the mice were released from the holding area, if they looked to the right there were two pellets of food. If the mice looked to the left, there were four pellets of food. All of the mice that they observed went to the left and took the four pellets of food.

That led to an understanding of how dopamine is responsible for making decisions. It wasn't that all of the mice didn't enjoy eating the pellets, that was apparent when they first ran the course without the barrier. All the mice choose the four pellets. But, when there was a barrier in place, only those who were able to make a cost to benefit ratio, and found that it was worth the extra effort to gain the four pellets, went to the right. The same research model has been demonstrated over and over. When it has been replicated in many different ways, the result has always been the same. The conclusion is that, if there is enough dopamine or a person has normal utilization of it, it motivates them to do a cost to benefit ratio and motivates them to go for the bigger gain.

They then put a barrier off to the left in the pathway of the four pellets and the two pellets remained to the right as before without any hurdle. What they found was that the mice who had normal levels of dopamine saw the barrier to the four pellets and thought it was no big deal and climbed over it to get the four pellets. Those mice who had a deficiency or dopamine utilization issues decided that going to the right without having any barrier in their way was much easier, and decided to forego the bigger reward to the left with the imposing barrier. So, instead of working to get over the barrier to get four, they went to the right and just took the two pellets.

That led to an understanding of how dopamine is responsible for making decisions. It wasn't that all of the mice didn't enjoy eating the pellets, that was apparent when they first ran the course without the barrier. All the mice choose the four pellets. But, when there was a barrier in place, only those who were able to make a cost to benefit ratio, and found that it was worth the extra effort to gain the four pellets, went to the right. The same research model has been demonstrated over and over. When it has been replicated in many different ways, the result has always been the same. The conclusion is that, if there is enough dopamine or a person has normal utilization of it, it motivates them to do a cost to benefit ratio and motivates them to go for the bigger gain.

Although studied in mice, the same is true of human beings. Dopamine gives us a certain amount of motivation. If we set a goal and our brains use dopamine effectively, then the cost to benefit ratio is typically in our favor, and we achieve our goals. Because rewards sometimes take more motivation, you need the proper amount of dopamine in the brain to accomplish your goals. When you do, the dopamine gives you a little shot of pleasure that motives you to work hard and do it again. It is those little biochemical treats that make us want to achieve our goals in the future.

Dopamine is also involved in memory and helps a person to make executive and higher order decisions. When people have a dopamine utilization issue, it can lead to various symptoms like ADHD, apathy, poor concentration, memory loss, and fatigue. When dopamine isn't used right, people know what they need to do, but they don't have the proper amount of dopamine to motivate them to get it done. Other things that a lack of dopamine can lead to is an addiction. Those who don't have the proper amount of dopamine seek to get those little biochemical treats that they aren't getting through things like drugs and alcohol. The hit of dopamine makes them feel good, and that can lead to addiction because they are always striving for that little shot of pleasure that is missing.

Utilization issues of dopamine can also lead to things like memory loss and poor concentration. The good news is that dopamine levels can be fixed and there are ways to support the neurological pathways to allow dopamine to work properly so that people can become motivated. Dopamine is a really important neurotransmitter that is involved in movement, pleasure and reward, and it is also responsible for motivation and the ability to make cost-to-benefit decisions that allow us to reach our goals.



 

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