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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

UC Researchers Discover a Pill That Makes You Want to Give Homeless People Money

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 10:48 AM

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Of all the "happy" pills you pop everyday, here's one you probably could really use: A medication that makes you a hell of a lot nicer to other people, even the ones on BART. 

Fortunately, scientists are working on this. Some researchers over at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco have discovered a new blend of meds that might make you compassionate enough to hand over your spare change to a homeless person without flinching. 

Imagine that kind of Utopia. 
During their study, researchers  found that consuming a drug which changes the "neurochemical balance in the prefrontal cortex of the brain" will lead to a greater willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors, such as caring about whether resources are divided more equally (Obamacare!).

The study was published this week
in the journal Current Biology, participants on two separate visits received a pill containing either a placebo or tolcapone, a drug that prolongs the effects of dopamine, a brain chemical that controls your reward and pleasure centers. Participants 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 in a fairer, more egalitarian way than after receiving the placebo.

“We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one’s personality,” said Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator and assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “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.”

Neither the 35 participants, which included 18 women,  nor study staff members knew which pills contained the placebo or tolcapone, an FDA-approved drug used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder affecting movement and muscle control.

Computational modeling showed Hsu and his colleagues that under tolcapone’s influence, game players were more sensitive to and less tolerant of social inequity, the perceived relative economic gap between a study participant and a stranger, UC Berkeley reports.

By connecting to previous studies showing that economic inequity is evaluated in the prefrontal cortex, a core area of the brain that dopamine affects, this study brings researchers closer to pinpointing how prosocial behaviors such as fairness are initiated in the brain.
“We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry,” said Ignacio Sáez, a postdoctoral researcher at the Haas School of Business. “Studies in the past decade have shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations. What we show here is one brain ‘switch’ we can affect.”

[UC Berkeley News]
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About The Author

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert was the Online News Editor for SF Weekly from 2010 to 2015. She's a Texas native and has a closet full of cowboy boots to prove it.

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