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Dopaminergic modulation of plasticity during social learning

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Behavioural test of synaptic changes

Scientists routinely measure dynamic changes in brain function through non-invasive recording techniques. A new EU-funded study developed a mathematical model to evaluate brain changes through simple behavioural measures.

Health

The ability to measure changes in neural connectivity (synaptic plasticity) with tests of learning and to evaluate pharmacological effects on that would be of inestimable value. It would usher in a new era in treatment of nervous system disorders, including psychiatric ones. EU-funded scientists set out to make it happen through work on the project 'Dopaminergic modulation of plasticity during social learning' (DOPAMINE&PLASTICITY). Researchers combined the use of behavioural paradigms, non-invasive recordings, genetics and computational modelling to extract quantitative measures of synaptic change. The learning paradigm integrated social and reward-based cues to guide behaviour. This increased understanding of how people make decisions, how they integrate hidden cues about others' intentions and decide to follow or ignore them. Such information is valuable on a fundamental basis and in diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as autism spectrum disorder. Electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in healthy volunteers evaluated gross changes in brain activity. Dopamine is an important central nervous system neurotransmitter. The over-arching goal is to develop models that can quantify drug-induced changes in synaptic plasticity as a function of learning variables. Researchers conducted the behavioural assessment in an fMRI study of healthy individuals and followed this with model development. They also carried out a genetic analysis combined with a model-based characterisation of neural mechanisms in such a task. Together with modelling studies, outcomes suggest that dopamine-dependent mechanisms similar to those active during reinforcement learning may also operate during social learning. If true, social learning studies could benefit from application of the plethora of reward-learning studies carried out in animal models. The pharmacological EEG and fMRI study will begin in the next few months. The team will assess the performance of the developed models. If they can detect which specific pharmacological intervention occurred in any given patient and even enable precise detection of functional dopamine receptor status, the study will pave the way to non-invasive, model-based measures of neurotransmitter regulation of synaptic plasticity. Outcomes would boost fundamental understanding while aiding diagnosis and therapy development in patients with deficits in social cognition such as autism spectrum disorder.

Keywords

Synaptic changes, brain function, non-invasive, recording techniques, neural connectivity, synaptic plasticity, learning, nervous system disorders, genetics, autism, brain activity, dopamine, behavioural assessment, neural mechanisms, social learning

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