Imagine a pill that makes you more compassionate and more likely to give spare change to someone less fortunate. Scientists have taken a big step in that direction!
Researchers have found that a drug that prolongs the effects of the brain chemical dopamine boosts compassion.
The drug changes the neurochemical balance in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, causing a greater willingness to engage in prosocial behaviours, such as ensuring that resources are divided more equally.
Future research may lead to a better understanding of the interaction between altered dopamine-brain mechanisms and mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or addiction, and potentially light the way to possible diagnostic tools or treatments for these disorders, researchers said.
“Our hope is that medications targeting social function may someday be used to treat these disabling conditions,” said Andrew Kayser, from the University of California - San Francisco.
In the study, published in the journal Current Biology, participants on two separate visits received a pill containing either a placebo or tolcapone, a drug that prolongs the effects of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex.
Participants then played a simple economic game in which they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient.
After receiving tolcapone, participants divided the money with the strangers in a fairer, more egalitarian way than after receiving the placebo.
“We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one’s personality,” said Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator from the University of California - Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
“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,” said Hsu.
In this double-blind study of 35 participants, including 18 women, neither participants nor study staff members knew which pills contained the placebo or tolcapone, an FDA-approved drug used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder affecting movement and muscle control.
Computational modelling showed 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.