(Oct. 16, 2017) -- How do we know if it was worth the wait in line to get a meal at the new restaurant in town? To do this our brain must be able to signal how good the meal tastes and associate this feeling with the restaurant. This is done by a small group of cells deep in the brain that release the chemical dopamine. The amount of dopamine released by these cells can influence our decisions by telling us how good a reward will be in the future. For example, more dopamine is released to the smell of a cake baking relative to the smell of leftovers. But does waiting change how dopamine is released?
A new study in Cell Reports by Matthew Wanat, assistant professor of biology at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), sheds light on how dopamine cells in the brain signal the passage of time. Wanat’s study used a technique called voltammetry to record dopamine release in rodents trained using Pavlovian conditioning. This task used two different tones that both predicted the delivery of a food reward. One tone was presented only after a short wait while the other tone was presented only after a long wait. Wanat and colleagues found that more dopamine was released to the short wait tone. These results highlight that when dopamine neurons respond to cues, faster is better.
“The big question that we’re focusing on is to identify the brain signals that influence the decisions we make,” Wanat said. “Many decisions are based upon comparing the value between cues associated with different rewards. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that these dopamine signals and external cues provide useful value-related signals that could inform our decisions to engage in a behavior.”
While Wanat and his collaborators are interested in studying how dopamine release is involved with cues triggering behavior, their work could also inform the understanding of drug addiction, which is closely intertwined with dopamine. Drug addiction can “hijack” the brain regions where dopamine is released. “By figuring out how the dopamine system works in normal and abnormal circumstances, we could potentially identify important changes and the ways that could target the dopamine system to rectify the consequences of those behaviors,” Wanat said.
“A lot has been said about the role of dopamine in reward, but reward is only really important in the context of making choices. Dr. Wanat's experiments allow direct measurement of dopamine acting in the brain during the process of choosing, and reveals how the brain decides the values of our choices,” said Charles Wilson, Ewing Halsell Distinguished Chair in Biology.
Wanat’s overarching research focuses on the brain’s relationships with memory, stress and drug addiction and how those components interact with each other. He is a member of the UTSA Neurosciences Institute, a multidisciplinary research organization for integrated brain studies with the mission to foster a collaborative community of scientists committed to studying the biological basis of human experience and behavior and the origin and treatment of nervous system diseases.
Wanat is one of 40 brain health researchers at UTSA, a group that includes experts in neurodegenerative disease, brain circuits and electrical signaling, traumatic brain injury, regenerative medicine, stem cell therapies, medicinal chemistry, neuroinflammation, drug design and psychology. Together, they are collaborating on complex, large-scale research producing a greater understanding of the brain’s complexity and the factors that cause its decline.
UTSA is recognized as one of the top five young universities in the nation by Times Higher Education.
Read Matthew Wanat’s study, “Dopamine Encodes Retrospective Temporal Information in a Context-Independent Manner.”
Learn more about the UTSA Department of Biology.
Learn more about the UTSA Neurosciences Institute.
The Roadrunner community and nearby residents are highly encouraged to cast their votes at UTSA, a designated early voting site for the March 3 Texas presidential primary election.H-E-B Student Union, Bexar Room (HSU 1.102), Main Campus
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in health care, you won’t want to miss UTSA’s 14th annual Health Professions Day. Meet with representatives of health professions programs at schools such as Texas Tech University Health Science Center, University of Texas Medical Branch, University North Texas Health Science Center, University of the Incarnate Word, and many more. Free and open to UTSA students, local area college and high school students, and community members.Student Union, Retama Galleria (SU First Floor Corridor), Main Campus
An FBI subject matter expert will discuss the threat to U.S. technology and public sector from foreign adversaries, specific technologies sought and vectors used to illicitly obtain them, how to best safeguard intellectual property.Durango Building (DB 2.112A), Downtown Campus
Why just leap when you can dash? The Alumni Association’s 36th annual Diploma Dash 5K and City Championship is a great opportunity to run or walk for a great cause: scholarships for UTSA students.Main Campus
Students are encouraged to attend to obtain important information about Spring Commencement and life after UTSA. Graduating students can order their cap and gown and other items, win prizes and capture lasting memories with fellow Roadrunners at a selfie station. Participants should take a UTSA student ID for entry.H-E-B Student Union, Ballrooms (HSU 1.104/1.106), Main Campus
UTSA’s first Wellbeing Fair is a part of the President’s Initiative of Enriching Campus Wellbeing. UTSA is committed to the well-being of each member of the campus community and recognizes that numerous factors contribute to overall wellness: physical and mental health, diet and nutrition, physical activity, stress management and self-care, social behaviors and more. The fair will give students, faculty and staff an opportunity to participate in well-being activities, obtain well-being information and learn about available services. Participants will become more competent in making healthy decisions to take a more proactive approach in their own well-being.Paseo Principal, Student Union, Main Campus
Students are encouraged to attend to obtain important information about Spring Commencement and life after UTSA. Graduating students can order their cap and gown and other items, win prizes and capture lasting memories with fellow Roadrunners at a selfie station. Participants should take a UTSA student ID for entry.Durango Building, El Mercado Room (DB 1.208), Downtown Campus
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