A new Vanderbilt University study found that some individuals have higher dopamine levels in certain parts of the brain, possibly explaining why these "go-getters" may be more motivated to seek rewards.
Researchers say their findings could help treat conditions tied to decreased motivation.
For the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers monitored brain activity in 25 participants ages 18 to 29 as they performed a task to assess their willingness to work for a cash reward:
- "Go-getters" who were willing to work hard for the reward released more dopamine in their brain's striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which are known to play a role in reward and motivation.
- "Slackers" who were less willing to work hard had higher levels of dopamine in the anterior insula, which is known to play a role in emotion and risk perception.
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Study co-author and psychology professor David Zald says the data do not prove the brain regions' impact on long-term achievements. However, he says, " if it does measure a trait variable such as an individual's willingness to expend effort to obtain long-term goals, it will be extremely valuable."
The researchers called for additional study into the link between dopamine and motivation levels in people with several types of mental illness. "Imagine how valuable it would be if we had an objective test that could tell whether a patient was suffering from a deficit or abnormality in an underlying neural system," Zald says, adding that treatment could then target "underlying conditions instead of the symptoms" (Preidt, HealthDay, 5/2).