Can a drug rewire your brain to be generous?



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"Greed is good," said Gordon Gekko. The desire and ability to put oneself before others can be seen either as the essential winning strategy in business or the root of all humankind's ills. As it turns out, it might just be a matter of a simple chemical imbalance. Scientists at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco have published a study showing how a drug that alters the chemical configuration in a certain part of the brain can lead to a greater willingness in people to adopt more altruistic, sharing behavior.


Give and take

Thirty-five participants were given a pill containing either a placebo or tolcapone, an FDA-approved drug classed as an inhibitor and that is usually used to treat Parkinson's disease. The drug in the "real" pill prevented the effects of dopamine from being neutralized. Dopamine is the brain's so-called "reward" transmitter — when its effects are prolonged, so are the feelings of happiness or satisfaction it brings. Its release into the prefrontal cortex, the study says, "is causally associated with human prosocial behavior." To prevent intentional or subconscious bias, the study was double blind, meaning that neither those administering the drug nor those taking it knew who was taking the placebo and who wasn't.

Participants then played a simple game where they were asked to divide a sum of money between themselves and an anonymous second person. The study was intended to measure "the extent to which individuals directly value the material payoffs of others, i.e., generosity" and "the extent to which they are averse to differences between their own payoffs and those of others, i.e., inequity." It was discovered that those individuals who had received the tolcapone divided the money more evenly than those who hadn't.


Checks and balances

Ignacio Sáez, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley and chief author of the study, outlines how previous studies have "shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations." Though a full understanding of the correlation between prosocial behavior and neural processes is still a long way off, Sáez regards the study as a valuable indication of what can be achieved. "We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry,” he says.

"We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one’s personality,” says Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator on the team. “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.” The study, says Hsu, shows “how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insights into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions.”

By learning how to affect these "brain switches," the authors of the study hope that further research may lead to a better understanding and potential treatment of addiction and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Andrew Kayser, another scientist involved with the study, says that he hopes "medications targeting social function may someday be used to treat these disabling conditions.”


Fair and square

Crucially, the scientists say, those given the tolcapone seemed to place greater importance on equality between individuals rather than on the specific amount received. Their behavior was specifically concerned with "inequity aversion, and not on other computational components such as the extent to which individuals directly value the material payoffs of others" — in other words, fairness ranked over material "success." 

This notion is potentially groundbreaking if not seismic. The argument that equal societies are happier than rich ones has received a lot of attention. Any evidence that supports a neurological explanation for generosity is bound to shake things up. An unrelated study has suggested that the race for material supremacy is cultural rather than innate. Author Frans de Waal's interest lies in what he calls the "evolution of morality." In an experiment with pairs of capuchin monkeys, de Waal showed how by offering unequal and "unfair" rewards for simple tasks, the monkeys who got short-changed displayed frustration and anger over what they saw as "immoral" behavior by the scientist.

The three studies suggest that not only is greed not necessarily good, it is also not inevitable. Further research may allow us to treat certain life-changing conditions — it may even help us to build a more socially conscious, egalitarian and tolerant society.