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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Risk Takers less able to Process Dopamine

New Year Resolution: iStockPhoto

Ah, New Year's. The time for spirited debauchery, reflection on the year gone by, and resolutions for the year to come. On New Year's Day, most people wake up determined (through the haze of their hang-overs) to do something different this year, whether it be losing weight, learning a new skill, or to quit biting their nails. That's admirable, but for the risk-takers and more impulsive among us, keeping a new year's resolution may be near impossible, and it's due to the dope—or lack, thereof.

Nope, not "dope" as in stupid or "dope" like drugs, but "dope" as in dopamine, the neurotransmitter that plays an important role in behavior and cognition, motivation and reward, and serves as a precursor of adrenaline. It is also believed to play a heavy role in addiction. New research out of Vanderbilt University shows that impulsive or risk-taking people have less of a certain type of dopamine receptor, which leads them to jump off cliffs or max out their credit card on a $2,000 handbag because they get a larger-than-normal rush from such activities.

The research conducted by the team revealed an inverse relationship between the number of dopamine autoreceptors in the brain and an individual's proclivity towards novel experiences. The role of the autoreceptor is to limit dopamine release when dopamine-producing cells are already stimulated. The fewer autoreceptors you have, the more dopamine will be released when a new or exciting situation arises. Says David Zald, the head researcher on the study, ""Our research suggests that in high novelty-seeking individuals, the brain is less able to regulate dopamine, and this may lead these individuals to be particularly responsive to novel and rewarding situations that normally induce dopamine release."

For the study, thirty-four healthy volunteers took a questionnaire designed to determine how much of a novelty-seeker the test-taker was. Factors included decision-making speed, thriftiness versus spendiness, the person's level of spontaneity, and extent of his or her adherence to rules and regulations. The higher the score, the more likely the person was to be a novelty seeker. Those that scored higher on the novelty-seeking scale had decreased dopamine autoreceptor availability compared to the subjects that scored lower.

These findings provide some explanation as to why your bungee jumping friend who resolved never to jump without a helmet again went out yesterday and did exactly that. Or why your friend up to her ears in credit card debt who swore to you at midnight she was going straight home to cut up all of her charge cards hit up the post-holiday sales and came back with an armful of shopping bags. Those low on dope may have an uphill battle when it comes to curbing their impulsive behavior, but that's not to say they can't keep any of their resolutions. Suggest they try to kick the nail biting. After all, everyone has to pick their battles.