Neuroscientists have long known that the brain chemical dopamine plays a role in a variety of bodily functions, including physical movement. But there had been some suggestion that the chemical also influences learning and memory. Now, scientists have watched a human brain in action to see what happens to dopamine when a person is trying to master a new skill.
Paul M. Grasby and colleagues from the Hammersmith Hospital and Imperial College School of Medicine in London used a new technique to measure the amount of dopamine produced in the brains of eight male volunteers while they played a video game that required them to navigate a tank through a battlefield.
Dopamine increased in a part of the brain called the striatum, which is involved in memory. Levels increased the most in those who performed the best on the video game.
"These results show, to our knowledge for the first time, behavioral conditions under which dopamine is released in humans," the researchers write in the May 21 issue of Nature.
The findings provide new clues to learning and memory, and the technique used to measure the dopamine could be used to study mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, the researchers say.