Altering our brain chemistry by taking tolcapone can make us more sensitive to inequality and thereby, more compassionate and more generous to others according to a study from a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco.
Researchers found out that giving a drug that changes the neurochemical balance in the prefrontal cortex of the brain results in greater propensity of an individual toward behaviours that promote sociability and relationship, as well as compassion and consideration—including ensuring that everyone has equal access to resources.
The study is a double-blind research involving 35 participants. Researches administered two pills separately—a placebo pill for one visit and a tolcapone pill for another visit. Thus, each visit involved taking either the placebo pill or the tolcapone pill. Even study staff members did not know which pills contained the placebo or tolcapone.
Tolcapone is a drug that prolongs the effects of dopamine in the brain. It is a recognised prescription drug used to treat people with the progressive neurological disorder known as Parkinson’s disease.
Dopamine, on the other hand, is a hormone and a neurotransmitter critical to several functions of the human brain and body. In the brain, dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with reward-motivation behavior. It affects the prefrontal cortex.
During the study, participants played a simple economic game centred on dividing money between themselves and an anonymous recipient during their first and second visits. Upon taking tolcapone that resulted in prolonged effects of dopamine, participants divided the money with the strangers in a more equal and egalitarian way than after receiving the placebo pill.
“Our study shows how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insights into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions,” said Ming Hsu, one of the lead authors and an assistant professor from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
Computer modeling further revealed that while under the effects of tolcapone, the participants were not only more sensitive to social inequity but also less tolerant to such situation.
“We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one’s personality,” said Hsu. “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.”
Previous studies have revealed that the prefrontal cortex evaluates economic inequity. This new study further revealed how the brain initiates pro-social behaviors such as fairness.
“We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry,” said first author Ignacio Sáez, 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.”
Further details of the study are in the article “Dopamine Modulates Egalitarian Behavior in Humans” published in 2015 in the journal Current Biology. Coauthors include Andrew Kayser of UC San Francisco, Eric Set of UC Berkeley, and Lusha Zhu of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The Department of Defense, Institute for Molecular Neuroscience, National Institutes of Health, and Hellman Family Faculty Fund provided the funding for the study.