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A Pill That Can Make You More Compassionate?

Mar 20, 2015 02:53 PM EDT
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Well, not exactly. But recent research did show that giving a drug that alters our brain chemistry can make us more sensitive to social inequality.

A new study by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco researchers examined 35 participants in order to figure out if there's a way we can be chemically altered to be more compassionate. The drug they used is called tolcapone, which is FDA-approved and prolongs the effects of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex. It's used to treat people with Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder affecting movement and muscle control.

The hope is that by better understanding the interaction between altered dopamine-brain mechanisms and mental illnesses - such as schizophrenia or addiction - researchers can come up with diagnostic tools or treatments for these disorders in the future.

"Our study shows how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insights into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions," Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator at UC Berkeley, said in a statement.

In this double-blind study, participants received a pill containing either a placebo or tolcapone, and then played a simple economic game in which they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient. After receiving tolcapone, participants divided the money with the strangers more fairly than after receiving the placebo.

This suggests that the brain's altered neurochemical balance causes a greater willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors, such as ensuring that resources are divided more equally.

"We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one's personality," said Hsu. "Our study doesn't reject this notion, but it does show how that trait can be systematically affected by targeting specific neurochemical pathways in the human brain."

And while this isn't to say that some magic pill will soon be able to compel you to give your seat up on the bus or give spare change to someone less fortunate, it certainly is a big step in that direction.

The results are described in more detail in the journal Current Biology.

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