‘Little devils in brain’ study wins prize

Three neuroscientists have won the world’s most valuable prize for brain research for pioneering work on the brain’s reward pathways – a system that is central to human and animal survival as well as disorders such as addiction and obesity.

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Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz, who all work in Britain, said they were surprised and delighted to receive the Brain Prize, which they said was a recognition of their persistent curiosity about how the human brain works.

The scientists’ research, spanning almost 30 years, found that dopamine neurons are at the heart of the brain’s reward system, affecting behaviour in everything from decision-making, risk-taking and gambling, to drug addiction and schizophrenia.

“This is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work,” said Schultz, a German-born professor of neuroscience who now works at the University of Cambridge.

He said dopamine neurons are like “like little devils in our brain that drive us towards more rewards”.

Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London, added to Schultz’s findings with research showing how humans update and change their goals through a dopamine-driven system “reward prediction error”.

He showed that our future behaviour is dictated by constant brain feedback on whether anticipated rewards are as expected, or better or worse than expected.

The 1 million euro ($AU1.4 million) Brain Prize, given by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is awarded annually and recognises scientists for outstanding contribution to neuroscience.