Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Chemistry that regulates whether we stay with what we're doing or try something new

Sidorenko et al. demonstrate that stimulating the brain's cholinergic and noradrenergic systems enhances optimal foraging behaviors in humans. Their significance statement and abstract:  


Deciding when to say “stop” to the ongoing course of action is paramount for preserving mental health, ensuring the well-being of oneself and others, and managing resources in a sustainable fashion. And yet, cross-species studies converge in their portrayal of real-world decision-makers who are prone to the overstaying bias. We investigated whether and how cognitive enhancers can reduce this bias in a foraging context. We report that the pharmacological upregulation of cholinergic and noradrenergic systems enhances optimality in a common dilemma—staying with the status quo or leaving for more rewarding alternatives—and thereby suggest that acetylcholine and noradrenaline causally mediate foraging behavior in humans.
Foraging theory prescribes when optimal foragers should leave the current option for more rewarding alternatives. Actual foragers often exploit options longer than prescribed by the theory, but it is unclear how this foraging suboptimality arises. We investigated whether the upregulation of cholinergic, noradrenergic, and dopaminergic systems increases foraging optimality. In a double-blind, between-subject design, participants (N = 160) received placebo, the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist nicotine, a noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor reboxetine, or a preferential dopamine reuptake inhibitor methylphenidate, and played the role of a farmer who collected milk from patches with different yield. Across all groups, participants on average overharvested. While methylphenidate had no effects on this bias, nicotine, and to some extent also reboxetine, significantly reduced deviation from foraging optimality, which resulted in better performance compared to placebo. Concurring with amplified goal-directedness and excluding heuristic explanations, nicotine independently also improved trial initiation and time perception. Our findings elucidate the neurochemical basis of behavioral flexibility and decision optimality and open unique perspectives on psychiatric disorders affecting these functions.

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