Cambridge-- As anyone who has traveled with young children knows, maintaining focus on distant goals can be a challenge. A new study from MIT suggests how the brain achieves this task, and indicates that the neurotransmitter dopamine may signal the value of long-term rewards. The findings may also explain why patients with Parkinson's disease in which dopamine signaling is impaired often have difficulty in sustaining motivation to finish tasks.
The work is described this week in the journal Nature.
Previous studies have linked dopamine to rewards, and have shown that dopamine neurons show brief bursts of activity when animals receive an unexpected reward. These dopamine signals are believed to be important for reinforcement learning, the process by which an animal learns to perform actions that lead to reward.
Taking the long view
In most studies, that reward has been delivered within a few seconds. In real life, though, gratification is not always immediate: Animals must often travel in search of food, and must maintain motivation for a distant goal while also responding to more immediate cues. The same is true for humans: A driver on a long road trip must remain focused on reaching a final destination while also reacting to traffic, stopping for snacks, and entertaining children in the back seat.
The MIT team, led by Institute Professor Ann Graybiel who is also an investigator at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research decided to study how dopamine changes during a maze task approximating work for delayed gratification. The researchers trained rats to navigate a maze to reach a reward. During each trial a rat would hear a tone instructing it to turn either right or left at an intersection to find a chocolate milk reward.
Rather than simply measuring the activity of dopamine-containing neurons, the MIT researchers wanted to measure how much dopamine was released in the striatum, a brai
|Contact: Kimberly Allen|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology