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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Pill for Compassion

In the not too distant future, science may provide a way to make humans more compassionate towards each other. New research at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, into dopamine’s effects in the brain shows that using a drug that alters the neurochemical balance in the prefrontal cortex results in a heightened willingness to engage in prosocial behaviour, Medical News Today reports. The findings may open doors to a better understanding of the interaction between altered dopamine-brain mechanisms and mental illnesses, such as addiction.

"Our study shows how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insights into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions," said Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator and assistant professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

"Our hope is that medications targeting social function may someday be used to treat these disabling conditions," said Andrew Kayser, a co-principal investigator on the study, an assistant professor of neurology at UC San Francisco and a researcher in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley.

In the study, participants were given a pill containing either a placebo or tolcapone, which prolongs the effects of dopamine and is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, according to the article. After which, a simple economic game was played, where participants divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient.

"We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one's personality," said Hsu. "Our study doesn't reject this notion, but it does show how that trait can be systematically affected by targeting specific neurochemical pathways in the human brain."

Those given tolcapone divided the money with the strangers in a fairer way, compared to those given the placebo.

"We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry," said lead author, Ignacio Sáez, a postdoctoral researcher at the Haas School of Business. "Studies in the past decade have shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations. What we show here is one brain 'switch' we can affect."

The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

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