Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, National University of Singapore and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have shown that betting decisions in a simple competitive game are influenced by the specific variants of dopamine-regulating genes in a person’s brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical released by brain cells to signal other brain cells – that is a key part of the brain’s reward and pleasure-seeking system. Dopamine deficiency leads to Parkinson’s disease, while disruption of the dopamine network is linked to numerous psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, including schizophrenia, depression and dementia.
While previous studies have shown the important role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in social interactions, this is the first study tying these interactions to specific genes that govern dopamine functioning.
"This study shows that genes influence complex social behavior, in this case strategic behavior," said study leader Ming Hsu, an assistant professor of marketing in UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. "We now have some clues about the neural mechanisms through which our genes affect behavior."
The implications for business are potentially vast but unclear, Hsu said, though one possibility is training workforces to be more strategic. But the findings could significantly affect our understanding of diseases involving dopamine, such as schizophrenia, as well as disorders of social interaction, such as autism.
"When people talk about dopamine dysfunction, schizophrenia is one of the first diseases that come to mind," Hsu said, noting that the disease involves a very complex pattern of social and decision making deficits. "To the degree that we can better understand ubiquitous social interactions in strategic settings, it may help us understand how to characterize and eventually treat the social deficits that are symptoms of diseases like schizophrenia."
Hsu, UIUC graduate student Eric Set and their colleagues, including Richard P. Ebstein and Soo Hong Chew from the National University of Singapore, will publish their findings the week of June 16 in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hsu established two years ago that when people engage in competitive social interactions, such as betting games, they primarily call upon two areas of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the executive part of the brain, and the striatum, which deals with motivation and is crucial for learning to acquire rewards. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans showed that people playing these games displayed intense activity in these areas.
"If you think of the brain as a computing machine, these are areas that take inputs, crank them through an algorithm, and translate them into behavioral outputs," Hsu said. "What is really interesting about these areas is that both are innervated by neurons that use dopamine."
Hsu and Set of UIUC's Department of Economics wanted to determine which genes involved in regulating dopamine concentrations in these brain areas were associated with strategic thinking, so they enlisted as subjects a group of 217 undergraduates at the National University of Singapore, all of whom had had their genomes scanned for some 700,000 genetic variants. The researchers focused on only 143 variants within 12 genes involved in regulating dopamine. Some of the 12 are primarily involved in regulating dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, while others primarily regulate dopamine in the striatum.