A pill to boost compassion?

A new study shows a drug that causes a greater willingness to engage in pro-social behaviours


The drug prolongs the effect of dopamine, a brain chemical that is known to be associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex, a core area of the brain.
The drug prolongs the effect of dopamine, a brain chemical that is known to be associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex, a core area of the brain.

New Delhi: There is already talk about the future possibility of food pills or meals-in-a-pill. Now, scientists are working on pills that can shape social interactions and behaviours. A pill that can make you more compassionate, for instance.

A new study published on Thursday in the Current Biology Journal shows that giving a drug that changes the neurochemical balance in the prefrontal cortex—a core area of the brain—causes a greater willingness to engage in pro-social behaviors, such as ensuring that resources are divided more equally.

In a double-blind study conducted by University of California (UC), Berkeley and UC San Francisco researchers, 35 participants on two separate visits received a pill containing either a placebo or tolcapone, a drug that prolongs the effects of dopamine.

Dopamine is a brain chemical that is known to be associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex. Participants then played a game in which they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient.

After receiving tolcapone, a drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) to treat Parkinson’s disease, participants divided the money more equally and fairly with the strangers than after receiving the placebo.

“We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one’s personality,” Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator and assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said in a statement. “Our study doesn’t reject this notion, but it does show how that trait can be systematically affected by targeting specific neurochemical pathways in the human brain.”

Computational modelling showed Hsu and his colleagues that under tolcapone’s influence, game players were more sensitive to and less tolerant of social inequity, the perceived relative economic gap between a study participant and a stranger.

“We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry,” said the study’s first author, Ignacio Saez, a postdoctoral researcher at the Haas School of Business.

“Studies in the past decade have shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations. What we show here is one brain ‘switch’ we can affect,” Saez explained.

The authors have cited previous studies that showed that economic inequity is evaluated in the prefrontal cortex, which is affected by dopamine.

“Our study shows how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insight into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions,” said Hsu.

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