New research suggests dopamine, also known as the happiness hormone, can help neurons tackle difficult tasks.
A research team demonstrated for the first time how dopamine influences the brains cells while they are processing rules, Universitaet Tübingen reported.
"With these findings, we are just starting to understand how nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex produce complex, goal-directed behavior," said researcher Torben Ott. "Dopamine imbalances can lead to a variety of neurological disruptions and mental incapacities; it is abundant in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for "abstract thought, rule-based decisions and logical conclusions."
Very little is known about how dopamine affects neural information processing in the healthy brain.
In order to determine this researchers looked at rhesus monkeys that were trained to solve "greater than" and "less than" math problems. Recent studies have shown certain neurons in the prefrontal cortex were activated only when the "greater than" rule applied while others were only activated when presented with the "less than" rule.
When these cells are activated small amounts of substances that have either the same effect as dopamine or the opposite are discharged. These substances were found to be able to be absorbed by dopamine-sensitive neurons. Through observations of the monkeys, the researchers determined the stimulation of the dopamine system allowed "rule cells" to perform more efficiently and better distinguish between the "greater than" and "less than" scenarios.
"These new insights help us to better interpret the effects of certain medicines which may be used for instance in cases of severe psychological disturbance," said Professor Andreas Nieder of Tübingen's Institute for Neurobiology. "because such medications influence the dopamine balance in the prefrontal cortex in ways we do not understand well to date."
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Neuron.