Scientists Connect Dopamine, Facial Recognition in Study


In a recent study, researchers at UT Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth,
working in collaboration with colleagues in Sweden, have revealed a
link between the dopamine neurotransmitter system in the brain and an
individual’s ability to recognize faces.

Led by Dr. Bart Rypma, Meadows Foundation Chair in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences,
the study found that the amount of dopamine relative to the amount of
brain activity in the fusiform gyrus strongly predicted the ability to
recognize faces. Although the fusiform gyrus has been previously
established as an area of the brain related to facial recognition, this
is the first time scientists have made a connection between dopamine and
facial recognition.

The findings were published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Dr. Nicholas Hubbard, who worked with Rypma, at the Center for BrainHealth, was a co-author of the paper.

is an intimate relationship between face recognition and the reward
system,” said Rypma, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and
cognitive psychology. “For example, you can imagine that the more
sensitive someone is to social rewards, the better they feel during
social interactions with familiar faces. People who are better at
recognizing faces are likely more socially outgoing than those who have
greater trouble differentiating one face from another.”

Using a
combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron
emission tomography (PET) imaging, researchers discovered that
individuals who showed more brain activity per unit of dopamine showed
better facial recognition.

Dopamine is the “feel-good” chemical linked to the body’s natural
reward system. That system drives survival, providing individuals with
motivation and rewards in the form of positive stimuli for vital
behaviors such as eating nutritious food and procreating.

For the study, 10 male and 10 female participants, ages 22 to 30, were shown 24 faces and asked to remember them.

then underwent fMRI scanning while they were shown the studied faces
intermixed with new ones. As participants viewed each face, they were
asked to indicate whether it was new or familiar while the researchers
monitored their brain activity. Researchers also measured dopamine
availability of each participant with a PET scan.

“The findings
suggest that the strength of the neural response to the amount of
dopamine transmitted could be key to understanding why we remember some
faces and forget others,” Hubbard said. “Establishing this empirical
link between fusiform activity and dopamine binding, and linking these
to a cognitive process that is highly relevant for survival in a social
world, was a most exciting find.”


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