Three neuroscientists won the world’s most valuable prize for brain research on Monday for pioneering work on the brain’s reward pathways – a system that is central to human and animal survival as well as disorders such as addiction and obesity.
Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz, who all work in Britain, said they were surprised and delighted to receive the Brain Prize, which they said was a recognition of their persistent curiosity about how the human brain works.
The scientists’ research, spanning almost 30 years, found that dopamine neurons are at the heart of the brain’s reward system, affecting behaviour in everything from decision-making, risk-taking and gambling, to drug addiction and schizophrenia.
“This is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work,” said Schultz, a German-born professor of neuroscience who now works at the University of Cambridge.
He said dopamine neurons are like “like little devils in our brain that drive us towards more rewards”.
Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London, added to Schultz’s findings with research showing how humans update and change their goals through a dopamine-driven system “reward prediction error”.
He showed that our future behaviour is dictated by constant brain feedback on whether anticipated rewards are as expected, or better or worse than expected.
The one million euro Brain Prize, given by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is awarded annually and recognises scientists for outstanding contribution to neuroscience.
Colin Blakemore, chairman of the selection committee, said the three scientists’ work had helped decipher the way people use and respond to rewards across many aspects of life.
“The implications of these discoveries are extremely wide-ranging, in fields as diverse as economics, social science, drug addiction and psychiatry,” he said in a statement.
Dolan, director of the new Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing, and Dayan, cracked open a bottle of champagne in London after being told of the prize.
Schultz described the news as a fantastic reward.
“I can hear our dopamine neurons jumping up and down,” he said.