VU Research Maps Differences in Brains of Slackers, Go-Getters

Researchers Michael Treadway, left, and David Zald mock-arm-wrestle. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt

Researchers at Vanderbilt believe they’ve pinpointed a key difference between the brains of high-achievers and loafers. The study is published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

The chemical dopamine is released in people’s brains when they work hard for a reward.

In the research, go-getters had a release in two areas of the brain known to play a role in reward and motivation. Vanderbilt psychology professor David Zald says low achievers – to his surprise – still had dopamine releases, but in a different part of the brain.

“The slackers end up having more dopamine release in this specific area, in this area that would be involved in trying to avoid potential losses.”

Zald says his research seems to indicate someone who lacks motivation may just be paralyzed by a hyper-sensitivity to risk. He sees implications in the kinds of drugs that are prescribed for certain types of depression or mental illness.

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From Vanderbilt:

The study was conducted with 25 healthy volunteers (52 percent female) ranging in age from 18 to 29. To determine their willingness to work for a monetary reward, the participants were asked to perform a button-pushing task.

First, they were asked to select either an easy or a hard button-pushing task. Easy tasks earned $1 while the reward for hard tasks ranged up to $4. Once they made their selection, they were told they had a high, medium or low probability of getting the reward. Individual tasks lasted for about 30 seconds and participants were asked to perform them repeatedly for about 20 minutes.

The research is part of a larger project designed to search for objective measures for depression and other psychological disorders where motivation is reduced.

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