A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has used brain imaging, genetics and experimental psychology techniques to identify a connection between brain reward circuitry, a behavioral measurement of preference and a gene variant that appears to influence both. The report in the August 4 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry describes how variations in a gene involved with the brain's reward function are associated with the activity of a key brain structure and, in parallel, with the effort study participants 'invest' in viewing emotion-laden facial images. The findings have implications for how genes may influence healthy or dysfunctional behavior involving choices in many different areas.
"This work helps connect our psychological understanding of why we like some things and not others with the genetic mechanisms that define our range of behaviors," says Hans Breiter, MD, senior and corresponding author of the study and principal investigator for the Phenotype Genotype Project in Addiction and Mood Disorders, an interdisciplinary project involving the MGH Departments of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Neurology. "In the ongoing discussion about how much the environment versus genetics determine behavior, this study points to how the interaction between these factors influences our judgment and decision-making."
The current study is part of a decade-long effort to link studies of reward and aversion in animal models to human psychology and neuroscience. In the mid-1990s, Breiter and other MGH researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques to demonstrate how structures deep within the brain were involved with the experience of reward, how that experience was connected to motivated behavior, and how the reward system could be co-opted in situations like drug addiction.
In 2001, Breiter collaborated with Daniel Kahneman, PhD, of Princeton University and Peter Shizgal, PhD, Concor
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Massachusetts General Hospital