I, like most any gentleman in his late twenties, is content with lying around on the couch with a cold beer and a game on TV. However, being in grad school, I find that such moments of respite are increasingly harder to come by. This whole Ph.D. thing takes a lot of work. Still, to graduate, I will do what I must.
What I didn’t know is that my attitude towards hard work may not be my choice, but could simply be how my brain works. A brain imaging study performed by Michael Treadway in the lab of David Zald at Vanderbilt, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, has discovered that your willingness to work hard is actually regulated by the chemistry in your brain.
The research team is, of course, interested in more than why some of their coworkers were more lazy than others. Several forms of mental illness, such as attention-deficit disorder, are characterized by decreased motivation, and understanding how this is controlled by the brain may bring about new and better treatments.
Their study involved a brain mapping technique called positron emission tomography (PET scan). They scanned the brains of a group of individuals that were classified as “slackers” or “go-getters” based on the results of a set of tasks they were given.
The study found that in go-getters, the neurotransmitter dopamine was active in two specific parts of the brain associated with reward and motivation. In slackers, dopamine was active instead in a different part of the brain associated with emotion and risk perception. Seems like the slackers stimulate this risk center more than go-getters, so perhaps they question the cost/benefit balance of the work in a different way, leading to their reduced effort.
Researchers knew dopamine was important in reward motivation. What was really surprising was that it could have opposing roles in different parts of the brain. Previously, it was thought that total level of the molecule was more important, and treatments for the aforementioned mental illnesses were designed to affect dopamine levels. Turns out, where it’s acting is just as important.
Now, researchers can study the validity of these findings in those with psychological disorders to see how relevant they are and make alterations to current treatments as is needed. As always, researchers continue hard at work, just like you should be!
Thanks & Gig ‘Em.