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Sense of Adventure Rests in Primitive Brain Region

But dopamine reward system may also play role in less desirable addictions, expert says

WEDNESDAY, June 25 (HealthDay News) -- Your sense of adventure comes from a primitive area of the brain called the ventral striatum, British researchers say.

Scientists from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London used fMRI to track brain activity in volunteers and found the ventral striatum was activated when participants chose unfamiliar items over familiar ones. This may be an evolutionary feature shared by many animals, the researchers said.

"Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioral tendency in humans and animals," Dr. Bianca Wittmann said in a prepared statement.

"It makes sense to try new options, as they may prove advantageous in the long run. For example, a monkey who chooses to deviate from its diet of bananas, even if this involves moving to an unfamiliar part of the forest and eating a new type of food, may find its diet enriched and more nutritious," she said.

The ventral stratium is one of the key areas involved in the brain's rewards processing system, which helps humans learn behaviors that are beneficial and worth repeating. While Wittmann and her colleagues didn't determine exactly how seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is rewarded, they suspect it may be through the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

While the ventral stratium may be beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint, it can make people more susceptible to certain types of marketing.

"I might have my own favorite choice of chocolate bar, but if I see a different bar repackaged, advertising its 'new, improved flavor,' my search for novel experience may encourage me to move away from my usual choice," Wittmann explained. "This introduces the danger of being sold 'old wine in a new skin,' and is something that marketing departments take advantage of."

The brain's reward system for making novel choices could have even more serious consequences, said study co-author Professor Nathaniel Daw.

"The novelty bonus may be useful in helping us make complex, uncertain decisions, but it clearly has a downside. In humans, increased novelty-seeking may play a role in gambling and drug addiction, both of which are mediated by malfunctions in dopamine release," Daw said.

The study was published online in Neuron.

More information

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about the brain.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Wellcome Trust, news release, June 25, 2008

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