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How the brain keeps eyes on the prize

Dopamine signal strengthens as long-term goal draws nearer.

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As anyone who has traveled with young children knows, maintaining focus on distant goals can be a challenge. A new study from MIT suggests how the brain achieves this task, and indicates that the neurotransmitter dopamine may signal the value of long-term rewards. The findings may also explain why patients with Parkinson's disease — in which dopamine signaling is impaired — often have difficulty in sustaining motivation to finish tasks.

The work is described in the journal Nature.

Previous studies have linked dopamine to rewards, and have shown that dopamine neurons show brief bursts of activity when animals receive an unexpected reward. These dopamine signals are believed to be important for reinforcement learning, the process by which an animal learns to perform actions that lead to reward.

Taking the long view

In most studies, that reward has been delivered within a few seconds. In real life, though, gratification is not always immediate: Animals must often travel in search of food, and must maintain motivation for a distant goal while also responding to more immediate cues. The same is true for humans: A driver on a long road trip must remain focused on reaching a final destination while also reacting to traffic, stopping for snacks, and entertaining children in the back seat.

The MIT team, led by Institute Professor Ann Graybiel —...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.