It has been established that teamwork activates areas in the brain with strong dopaminergic input. This kind of cooperation is apparently inherited, and gene interactions are said to determine individual differences in cooperativeness in a teamwork setting. The exact role of dopamine, one of the “feel good” or “happy” chemicals of the brain, in positively influencing “teamwork” mentality was lacking despite considerable evidence that dopamine and cooperative behavior are connected.
Under normal circumstances, an enzyme called Catechol-O-Methyltransferase or COMT is produced by the nerve cells in the brain. COMT acts by breaking down neurotransmitters like dopamine to maintain their appropriate levels. COMT is significant in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in receiving and sorting out information fed from other parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex helps determine an individual’s personality, inhibition of behaviors, abstract thinking, etc.
Using an inhibitor of COMT called Tolcapone, an FDA approved drug used for treating Parkinson’s disease, investigator Saez and coworkers studied the resultant increase in dopamine levels in the brain on prosocial behavior. A study was conducted in which the subjects were unaware of whether they were being given Tolcapone or a placebo. All subjects were assessed for generosity and inequity by making them participate in the “dictator game” used in experimental economics. In this game, participants were supposed to divide the money they receive for themselves and a stranger. The Tolcapone treated individuals divided the money in a fairer manner when compared to the placebo group. Subsequent computational modeling showed that subjects treated with Tolcapone exhibited increased sensitivity and decreased tolerance to inequity.
The involvement of the prefrontal cortex in substance addiction and schizophrenia is well known. In this connection, the finding of the cause-and-effect relationship between neurochemicals and prosocial behavior in this study is significant. It will go a long way in understanding the social dysfunction observed in some of the conditions mentioned above, as well as the diagnosis and treatment of such conditions.
Written by Mangala Sarkar Ph.D.