Professor Ray Dolan, Consultant Neurologist in Queen Square has been awarded the prestigious Brain Prize award, alongside Professor Peter Dayan from University College London and Professor Wolfram Schultz from Denmark’s Lundbeck Foundation.
The prize has been awarded in recognition for their study of the brain’s reward centre, work which has ‘unravelled the critical role of the brain chemical, dopamine’.
The researchers explain that reward is how we as humans optimise our choices, with dopamine triggering a set of brain cells to respond whenever there is a potential reward. Professor Schultz explains that “this makes us go for more rewards, and individuals that have more reward have a higher chance of survival”. He added that “this is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work.”
However, their work also considers when this natural response can go wrong, particularly in cases of Parkinson’s Disease where drugs are given to boost dopamine levels. Professor Dolan explains that this “…can often have very negative effects leading to excess gambling.” Other patients have also suddenly developed compulsive shopping habits or become obese as a result of changes to this reward system.
The implications of this discovery are wide ranging, potentially influencing fields as diverse as economics, social science, drug addiction and psychiatry.