A new study shows what happens in the brain when we give up.
The findings, published in Cell, offer new insight into the complex world of motivation and reward.
According to researchers, their findings could help people find motivation when they are depressed, as well as decrease motivation for drugs and other addictive substances.
Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Washington University School of Medicine, as well as colleagues at other universities, spent four years looking at the role of nociceptin in regulating motivation in mice.
Inside the brain, a group of cells known as nociceptin neurons get very active before a mouse’s breakpoint. They emit nociceptin, a complex molecule that suppresses dopamine, a chemical associated with motivation.
The nociceptin neurons are located near an area of the brain known as the ventral tegmental area. The VTA contains neurons that release dopamine during pleasurable activities.
Although scientists have previously studied the effects of fast, simple neurotransmitters on dopamine neurons, the new study is among the first to describe the effects of this complex nociception modulatory system, according to researchers.
“We are taking an entirely new angle on an area of the brain known as VTA,” said co-lead author Christian Pedersen, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the UW College of Engineering. “The big discovery is that large complex neurotransmitters known as neuropeptides have a very robust effect on animal behavior by acting on the VTA.”
The discovery came by looking at the neurons in mice seeking sucrose. The mice had to poke their snout into a port to get sucrose. At first it was easy, then it became two pokes, then five, increasing exponentially, and so on. Eventually, all the mice gave up, the researchers reported.
Neural activity recordings revealed that these “demotivation” or “frustration” neurons became most active when mice stopped seeking sucrose.
In mammals, the neural circuits that underlie reward seeking are regulated by mechanisms to keep homeostasis, the tendency to maintain internal stability to compensate for environmental changes.
In the wild, animals are less motivated to seek rewards in environments where resources are scarce. Persistence in seeking uncertain rewards can be disadvantageous due to risky exposure to predators or from energy expenditure, the researchers noted.
According to senior author Dr. Michael Bruchas, a professor of anesthesiology, pain medicine, and pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, the findings could go a long way towards finding help for patients whose motivation neurons are not functioning correctly.
“We might think of different scenarios where people aren’t motivated, like depression, and block these neurons and receptors to help them feel better,” he said. “That’s what’s powerful about discovering these cells. Neuropsychiatric diseases that impact motivation could be improved.”
Looking to the future, these neurons could perhaps be modified in people seeking drugs or those who have other addictions, he added.
Source: University of Washington