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Experiment explains link between behaviour and drugs

Friday July 3th, 2015

Several brain drugs may interfere with moral judgements, researchers reported today.

The psychosocial effects of taking dopamine-boosting drugs compared with serotonin-enhancing medication were revealed in a newly published UK-based study.

The moral decision-making experiment at University College London, England, showed that healthy people who took citalopram, a serotonin-enhancing antidepressant, were willing to pay almost twice as much to prevent harm to themselves or others than those given placebo drugs.

However, those who were given levodopa, a dopamine-boosting Parkinson's drug, tended to become more selfish, which eliminated an altruistic tendency to prefer harming themselves over others.

Lead author Dr Molly Crockett, who conducted the double-blind randomised controlled trial at UCL, said the study provides insight into the neural basis of clinical disorders that are characterised by a lack of concern for others, such as psychopathy.

It also helps to explain why serotonin and dopamine levels have both been linked to aggressive and antisocial behaviour.

"Our findings have implications for potential lines of treatment for antisocial behaviour, as they help us to understand how serotonin and dopamine affect people's willingness to harm others for personal gain," says Dr Crockett, who is now at Oxford University.

"We have shown that commonly-prescribed psychiatric drugs influence moral decisions in healthy people, raising important ethical questions about the use of such drugs.

"It is important to stress, however, that these drugs may have different effects in psychiatric patients compared to healthy people. More research is needed to determine whether these drugs affect moral decisions in people who take them for medical reasons."

The Wellcome Trust-funded study, which is published in the latest edition of Current Biology, compared how much pain people were willing to anonymously inflict on themselves or strangers in exchange for money. A total of 175 healthy adults took part, 89 of whom were randomly selected to receive citalopram or placebo and 86 of whom were randomly selected to take levodopa or placebo.

Each participant was randomly assigned to the role of decider and receiver and was anonymously paired up so that each decider did not know who the receiver was and vice-versa.

All participants were given mildly painful electric shocks matched to their pain threshold so that the intensity was not intolerable. Deciders were explicitly told that shocks to receivers would be at the receiver's own pain threshold.

For each of the 170 trials, deciders had to choose between different amounts of money for different numbers of shocks, up to a maximum 20 shocks and £20 per trial. For example, they might be offered a choice of seven shocks for £10 or ten shocks for £15. Half of the decisions related to shocks for themselves and half to shocks for the receiver, but in all cases the deciders would get the money.

At the end of the session, one of the chosen trial results was implemented so that the decider or receiver received the shocks and the decider received the profits. Deciders knew that their decisions would be kept secret so that fear of judgment or retaliation would not skew the results.

On average, people given a placebo were prepared to pay about 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves and 44p per shock to prevent harm to others. Those on citalopram were willing to pay an average 60p per shock to prevent harm to themselves and 73p per shock to prevent harm to others.

Overall, people on citalopram delivered an average 30 fewer shocks to themselves and 35 fewer shocks to others than those on placebo.

People given levodopa, however, were not willing to pay any more to prevent shocks to others than to prevent shocks to themselves.

On average, they were prepared to pay about 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves or others. This meant that they delivered on average 10 more shocks to others during the experiment than the placebo group. They were also less hesitant to deliver shocks to others, making the decision faster than those on placebo.

Crockett et al. Dissociable effects of serotonin and dopamine on the valuation of harm in moral decision-making. Current Biology 3 July 2015

Tags: Brain & Neurology | Mental Health | Pharmaceuticals | UK News

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