“Are we there yet?”
As anyone who has traveled with young children knows, maintaining focus on distant goals can be a challenge. A new study from MIT suggests how the brain achieves this task, and indicates that the neurotransmitter dopamine may signal the value of long-term rewards. The findings may also explain why patients with Parkinson’s disease — in which dopamine signaling is impaired — often have difficulty in sustaining motivation to finish tasks.
The work is described this week in the journal Nature.
Previous studies have linked dopamine to rewards, and have shown that dopamine neurons show brief bursts of activity when animals receive an unexpected reward. These dopamine signals are believed to be important for reinforcement learning, the process by which an animal learns to perform actions that lead to reward.
Illustration of the chemical structure of a molecule of dopamine