New research explores role of serotonin in decision-making behaviour

June 5, 2008

New research by scientists at the University of Cambridge suggests that the neurotransmitter serotonin, which acts as a chemical messenger between nerve cells, plays a critical role in regulating emotions such as aggression during social decision-making.

Serotonin has long been associated with social behaviour, but its precise involvement in impulsive aggression has been controversial. Though many have hypothesised the link between serotonin and impulsivity, this is one of the first studies to show a causal link between the two.

Their findings highlight why some of us may become combative or aggressive when we haven't eaten. The essential amino acid necessary for the body to create serotonin can only be obtained through diet. Therefore, our serotonin levels naturally decline when we don't eat, an effect the researchers took advantage of in their experimental technique.

The research also provides insight into clinical disorders characterised by low serotonin levels, such as depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and may help explain some of the social difficulties associated with these disorders.

This research, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, suggests that patients with depression and anxiety disorders may benefit from therapies that teach them strategies for regulating emotions during decision making, particularly in social scenarios.

The researchers were able reduce brain serotonin levels in healthy volunteers for a short time by manipulating their diet. They used a situation known as the 'Ultimatum Game' to investigate how individuals with low serotonin react to what they perceive as unfair behaviour. In this game one player proposes a way to split a sum of money with a partner. If the partner accepts, both players are paid accordingly. But if he rejects the offer, neither player is paid.

Normally, people tend to reject about half of all offers less than 20-30% of the total stake, despite the fact that this means they receive nothing - but rejection rates increased to more than 80% after serotonin reductions. Other measures showed that the volunteers with serotonin depletion were not simply depressed or hypersensitive to lost rewards.

PhD student Molly Crockett, a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, said: "Our results suggest that serotonin plays a critical role in social decision-making by normally keeping aggressive social responses in check. Changes in diet and stress cause our serotonin levels to fluctuate naturally, so it's important to understand how this might affect our everyday decision-making."

Source: University of Cambridge

Explore further: Study may point to new treatment approach for ASD

Related Stories

Study may point to new treatment approach for ASD

November 17, 2017
Using sophisticated genome mining and gene manipulation techniques, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) have solved a mystery that could lead to a new treatment approach for autism spectrum disorder ...

Novel mouse model for autism yields clues to a 50-year-old mystery

March 20, 2012
Early disruptions in serotonin signaling in the brain may contribute to autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and other "enduring effects on behavior," Vanderbilt University researchers report.

Serotonin-deficient brains more vulnerable to social stress

February 9, 2015
Mice genetically deficient in serotonin—a crucial brain chemical implicated in clinical depression—are more vulnerable than their normal littermates to social stressors, according to a Duke study appearing this week in ...

Individuals with social phobia have too much serotonin—not too little

June 17, 2015
Previous studies have led researchers to believe that individuals with social anxiety disorder/ social phobia have too low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. A new study carried out at Uppsala University, however, ...

New research indicates causal link between vitamin D, serotonin synthesis and autism

February 26, 2014
A new study by Rhonda Patrick, PhD and Bruce Ames, PhD of Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) demonstrates the impact that Vitamin D may have on social behavior associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder ...

Serotonin improves sociability in mouse model of autism

June 21, 2017
Scientists at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) in Japan have linked early serotonin deficiency to several symptoms that occur in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Published in Science Advances, the study examined serotonin ...

Recommended for you

Hibernating ground squirrels provide clues to new stroke treatments

November 17, 2017
In the fight against brain damage caused by stroke, researchers have turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: hibernating ground squirrels.

Age and gut bacteria contribute to multiple sclerosis disease progression

November 17, 2017
Researchers at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School published a study suggesting that gut bacteria at young age can contribute to multiple sclerosis (MS) disease onset and progression.

Molecular guardian defends cells, organs against excess cholesterol

November 16, 2017
A team of researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health has illuminated a critical player in cholesterol metabolism that acts as a molecular guardian in cells to help maintain cholesterol levels within a safe, ...

Prototype ear plug sensor could improve monitoring of vital signs

November 16, 2017
Scientists have developed a sensor that fits in the ear, with the aim of monitoring the heart, brain and lungs functions for health and fitness.

Ancient enzyme could boost power of liquid biopsies to detect and profile cancers

November 16, 2017
Scientists are developing a set of medical tests called liquid biopsies that can rapidly detect the presence of cancers, infectious diseases and other conditions from only a small blood sample. Researchers at The University ...

FDA to crack down on risky stem cell offerings

November 16, 2017
U.S. health authorities announced plans Thursday to crack down on doctors pushing stem cell procedures that pose the gravest risks to patients amid an effort to police a burgeoning medical field that previously has received ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.