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2017 Brain Prize Awarded for Addiction Research

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Ground-breaking research into learning honoured with the world’s largest brain research prize The Lundbeck Foundation's major research prize – The Brain Prize – goes this year to three UK-based brain researchers for explaining how learning is associated with the reward system of the brain.

The prizewinners have found a key to understanding the mechanisms in the brain that lead to compulsive gambling, drug addiction and alcoholism.

Sophie is surprised and delighted by the great applause she receives for the new way she plays a piece of music. The applause motivates her to continue learning and improving and, perhaps, even become a professional musician one day. The applause is an unexpected reward. This unexpected reward is associated with an increased release of the brain’s neurotransmitter dopamine in specific brain cells, stimulating learning and motivation.

The three winners of the 2017 Brain Prize, English Peter Dayan, Irish Ray Dolan and German Wolfram Schultz, have identified how learning is linked with anticipation of reward, as in Sophie’s case, giving us fundamental knowledge about how we learn from our actions.

Through animal testing, mathematical modelling and human trials, the three prizewinners have proven that the release of dopamine is not a response to the actual reward but to the difference between the reward we expect and the reward we actually receive. The greater the surprise, the more dopamine is released.

The Brain Prize is for 1 million euros, or approximately 7.5m Danish kroner, and is the world's largest brain research prize. The organization behind the prize is the Lundbeck Foundation, one of Denmark's largest sponsors of biomedical sciences research. The chairman of the foundation’s Selection Committee, Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, explains the reasoning behind the award: “The research of these three prizewinners offers far-reaching perspectives on our understanding of human behavior and how we make decisions. Their research has also provided a valuable key to understanding what goes wrong when people succumb to compulsive gambling, drug addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.”

“Small devils in the brain”

The human brain has one million brain cells that carry the neurotransmitter dopamine. These dopamine neurons are located in the center of the brain but have pathways to many other parts of the brain. Prizewinner Wolfram Schultz describes the dopamine neurons as “small devils in our brains”. These are the cells that make us exert ourselves and act to gain ever greater rewards. But they are also the cells that are under attack when we consume substances such as cocaine, nicotine or alcohol. The system becomes overstimulated by dopamine – or hi-jacked – leading to addiction in some. The same applies to compulsive gambling where anticipation of an ever bigger win leads to increasingly risky behavior. “Mapping the connection between learning and reward is essential if we’re to understand human behavior and how to improve treatment of brain disorders. With elegant experiments and mathematical models, the prizewinners have described how dopamine plays a crucial role in the motivation that drives learning,” says Professor Morten Kringelbach, himself a researcher of the hedonic brain at the universities of Oxford and Aarhus.

Same mechanisms

The three prizewinners are receiving this award for increasing our understanding of dopamine neurons. In animal trials, Wolfram Schultz has mapped the parts of the brain in which dopamine neurons are located and has illustrated how they react to reward and external stimuli, helping control the behavior of the laboratory animals.

 Peter Dayan uses mathematical models to describe the way in which dopamine neurons react to the difference between what is expected and what actually happens. He has proved it probable that the dopamine neuron system helps control learning and actions.

In collaboration with Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan has tested these hypotheses in human trials and, applying brain scanning techniques to humans, has shown that human behavior is controlled by the same mechanisms present in laboratory animals.

An asset to Danish brain research The Brain Prize, which honors European brain research and international collaboration, is being awarded for the seventh successive year.

The outreach program attached to the prize invites the year’s three prizewinners to Denmark to participate in meetings and workshops together with Danish brain researchers.

The program is organized in partnership with the three largest Danish universities and the Danish Society for Neuroscience.

Kim Krogsgaard, Managing Director of The Brain Prize, says: “The Brain Prize and its associated activities help strengthen, internationalise and raise the profile of Danish brain research, providing a perfect supplement to the 250 million Danish kroner granted by the Lundbeck Foundation to Danish brain researchers each year. As a result, Denmark is gradually becoming a ‘brain research nation’, and opportunities for attracting leading international researchers are steadily improving – for the great benefit of Danish research.” 

This article has been republished from materials provided by The Lundbeck Foundation. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.