Cohen noted that these findings provide a critical link between studies in non-human animals that have looked directly at the activity of dopamine cells in the brainstem and studies in humans of behaviors thought to be related to dopamine. "It could also open up entirely new avenues of study," he said.
The team was able to develop high-resolution images that tracked the activity of tiny clusters of dopamine neurons. They weeded out distortions caused by many pulsing blood vessels in the brainstem. They also employed computerized rules of thumb known as algorithms and imaging techniques to reduce the effects of head movement and combine images from different subjects.
The MRI device produces three-dimensional images that show what portions of the brain engage during actions and thought processes. This allows the investigators to correlate physical processes with mental activities with unprecedented precision.
The brain stem, a tiny, root-shaped structure, is the lower part of the brain and sits atop the spinal cord. The area controls brain functions necessary for survival, such as breathing, digestion, heart rate, blood pressure and arousal. The brain structure also serves as the home base for the brain chemicals, also known as neuromodulators, such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. The chemicals spring forth into other brain regions from there, zipping along routes called axons.
The team's experiments confirmed results already seen in animal studies. Blood flow increased in dopamine centers of the brainstem when test subjects were happily surprised with a reward. However, there was no activity when participants received less than what they expected, a finding
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