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Dopamine is associated with mentalizing abilities

Dopamine is associated with mentalizing abilities
Dopamine is associated with mentalizing abilities


A new study has for the first time identified a link between the neurotransmitter dopamine and thinking ability in healthy people.

Mentalizing refers to the act of attributing and understanding the mental states (thoughts, emotions, intentions, etc.) of others and ourselves. Researchers at the University of Birmingham have demonstrated that changes in dopamine levels in the brain affect our mentalizing abilities. Their results were published today in PLOS Biology.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger in the brain, well known for playing an important role in pleasure, motivation and learning. Moreover, researchers know that low levels of dopamine in areas of the brain that control movement are a major cause of symptoms in diseases such as Parkinson's.

At the same time, social-cognitive problems, such as difficulties with emotion recognition and mentalizing, have also been associated with Parkinson's disease, although no clear link has been shown between these problems and dopamine imbalance.

Indeed, difficulties with Theory of Mind are commonly associated with psychosocial changes such as isolation and social withdrawal, which are common features of dopamine-related disorders.

Lead author Dr Bianca Schuster, from the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology, said: “Thinking abilities in people with Parkinson's may not be the main focus of treatment, but it still has a huge impact on those with the disease. A better understanding of how dopamine imbalances affect thought processes in the brain could be of huge importance for patients, as can a better understanding of the secondary effects of medications prescribed for Parkinson's and other conditions.”

In this study, researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment on a group of 33 healthy volunteers. Participants were given haloperidol, a drug that blocks dopamine receptors in the brain. The volunteers took part in the same experiment over two days, receiving the drug on the first day and a placebo on the other day.

Participants were asked to complete an animation task in which they were shown short videos of triangles “interacting” with each other. They were asked to interpret the videos by selecting the label they thought best described the unfolding scene. In a separate experiment, the researchers also investigated participants' ability to judge emotions expressed in full-body point-light displays (videos of actors in which only their joint movements were visible; published here: Schuster et al., 2021, Journal of Neuroscience).

The researchers found that after taking haloperidol, participants were significantly less able to accurately associate the animated interactions with mental states, which was linked to the drug's effect on emotion recognition.

“A major implication of our study is that in diseases involving dopamine dysfunction, in addition to causing the primary symptoms associated with these diseases (such as the motor symptoms of Parkinson's disease), dopamine imbalances also affect an individual's social-cognitive abilities,” Dr. Schuster added. “This research could have implications not only for how we treat Parkinson's disease in the future, but also for how we use any medications that affect the action of dopamine in the brain.”




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