BrainHealth Scientists Connect Dopamine, Facial Recognition

Monday, October 3, 2016

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.

“There 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.

“There is an intimate relationship between face recognition and the reward system. For example, you can imagine that the more sensitive someone is to social rewards, the better they feel during social interactions with familiar faces.”

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.

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