Optogenetics illuminates pathways of motivation through brain
Whether you are an apple tree or an antelope, survival depends on using your energy efficiently. In a difficult or dangerous situation, the key question is whether exerting effort — sending out roots in search of nutrients in a drought or running at top speed from a predator — will be worth the energy.
In a paper published online Nov. 18 in Nature, Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and postdoctoral scholar Melissa Warden, PhD, describe how they have isolated the neurons that carry these split-second decisions to act from the higher brain to the brain stem. In doing so, they have provided insight into the causes of severe brain disorders such as depression.
In organisms as complex as humans, the neural mechanisms that help answer the question, “Is it worth my effort?” can fail, leading to debilitating mental illnesses. Major depressive disorder, for instance, which affects nearly 20 percent of people at some point in life, is correlated with underperformance in the parts of the brain involved in motivation. But researchers have struggled to work out the exact cause and effect.
“It’s challenging because we do not have a fundamental understanding of the circuitry that controls this sort of behavioral pattern selection. We don’t understand what the brain is doing wrong when these behaviors become dysfunctional, or even what the brain is supposed to be doing when things are working right,” Deisseroth said. “This is the level of the mystery we face in this field.”
Clinicians refer to this slowing down of motivation in depressed patients as “psychomotor retardation.” According to Deisseroth, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, patients may experience this symptom mentally, finding it hard to envision the positive results of an action, or, he said, they may feel physically heavy, like their limbs just do not want to move.
“This is one of the most debilitating aspects of depression, and motivation to take action is something that we can model in animals. That’s the exciting opportunity for us as researchers,” said Deisseroth, who also holds the D.H. Chen Professorship.