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(Neuro) the science of becoming and remaining motivated


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There is no doubt that motivation is one of the most difficult and yet important factors in life. It is the difference between success and failure, goal and aimlessness, well-being and unhappiness. And yet, why is it so hard to be motivated? Or even if we do, to keep it up?

This is the question that researchers under the leadership of Professor Carmen Sandi at EPFL and Dr. Gedi Luksys at the University of Edinburgh has tried to answer. Previous studies have shown two things: First, that people differ greatly in their ability to engage in motivated behavior and that motivational problems such as apathy are common in neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders. Second, an area of ​​the brain called the nucleus accumbens was a likely target for motivated behavior.

Sitting close to the bottom of the brain, the nucleus accumbens has been the subject of much research, as studies have shown that it is an important player in functions such as reluctance, reward, reinforcement and motivation. To test and quantify the motivation, the EPFL team designed a so-called monetary incentive task. The idea is that the participants perform a task with increasing and measurable effort and receive sums that correspond to their effort. Basically, do more and get paid more.

In this study, 43 men were scanned to measure metabolites in the nucleus accumbens via a sophisticated brain imaging technique called proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or 1

H-MRS. This can specifically measure the abundance of neurochemicals in the brain, such as neurotransmitters and metabolites. Because of this, 1H-MRS is used in clinical settings to determine neurological disorders.

Illustration of the effort of hand grip force. In the experiment, participants were first asked to press the grip on their maximum force or capacity. Then, during the execution of the task, in each trial, they had to push it up to a strength threshold of 50% of their maximum voluntary contraction and maintained at that strength for a further 3 seconds to obtain the specific monetary incentive granted to each trial. The task consisted of 80 consecutive trials. Credit: João Rodrigues (EPFL)

Each participant was then asked to press a device that measures force – a dynamometer to a certain level of contraction to earn either 0.2, 0.5 or a Swiss franc. This procedure was repeated in a number of 120 consecutive trials, which made the execution of the task quite demanding.

The idea of ​​the experiment was that the sums would drive the participants to decide whether to invest energy and perform the task accordingly at each experiment. The researchers also ran the experiment under isolation and group conditions to investigate the impact of competition on performance.

Once they had collected behavioral data, the researchers processed it through a computational model that estimated the most appropriate parameters that should be measured in terms of usefulness, effort, and performance features. This allowed them to inquire whether specific neurotransmitter levels predicted specific motivational functions.

The analysis revealed that the key to performance – and by extension – motivation – lies in the relationship between two neurotransmitters in the nucleus accumbens: glutamine and glutamate. Specifically, the relationship between glutamine and glutamate relates to our ability to maintain performance over a long period of time – what the researchers say is endurance.

Another finding was that competition seems to increase performance, even from the beginning of the task. This was especially the case for individuals with low ratios of glutamine to glutamate in the nucleus accumbens.

“The results provide new insight into the field of neuroscience,” says Carmen Sandi. “They show that the balance between glutamine and glutamate can help predict specific, calculated components of motivated performance. Our methodology and data can also help us develop therapeutic strategies, including nutritional interventions, that address effort commitment deficits by targeting metabolism. ”

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More information:
Alina Strasser et al., The glutamine-to-glutamate ratio in the nucleus accumbens predicts exertional motivated performance in humans, Neuropsychopharmacology (2020). DOI: 10.1038 / s41386-020-0760-6

Provided by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

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