Researchers at the University of Alberta have found that dopamine, a chemical involved in the reward and pleasure system of the brain, is also connected to cellular memory.
Scientists have known for some time that the brain releases dopamine in response to a rewarding stimulus, such as food or drugs, but this is the first time a mechanism has been found that links it to cell learning in the brain. This discovery is an exciting finding as it provides an important clue to one of the underlying causes of addiction and obesity and could lead to a treatment for both diseases.
While most people have experienced pleasure when eating certain foods and don’t need scientific proof of the effect, experiments have actually confirmed that tasty and highly-caloric foods cause the release of dopamine, thus making people feel rewarded. This observation demonstrates the role that dopamine plays in food addiction and the development of obesity.
It has also been observed that memories are actually formed in relation to where the rewarding stimuli can be expected. This is what helps us remember where to find the reward in the future.
This study, which was conducted by Professor Bill Colmers, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology, and his research group, wanted to find out what effect dopamine might have on specific memory-forming brain cells. Their research identified the exact mechanism that linked dopamine to spatial learning – the memory of the place associated with a reward.
The researchers were able to observe that dopamine produced excitability in the brain and opened a biological pathway for making a memory of where a reward was found. They also noted that a brain chemical called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) blocked the associations and prevented the memory between reward and location from being formed.
Since the major focus of the research group is obesity, the findings are a very exciting discovery. As explained by Professor Bill Colmers, “You can find the fridge and you know there’s good stuff in there, so you can find it in your sleep, and people do, so there’s this whole reward aspect to place that we’ve been able to unravel.”
The results of this study provide us with a better understanding of how the brain learns and how it forms reward-cued spatial memories. Potentially, this information could be instrumental in treating addiction to food or drugs with a method that involves disconnecting the memory of a place from the good feeling of the stimulus received there.
Food addiction is an underlying cause of obesity and a problem that is not solved with weight loss surgery. The more we learn about the body and brain connection, the closer we get to finding an effective treatment for addiction and obesity.