MIT neuroscientists have now discovered a circuit that they believe controls the diversion of attention away from everyday pursuits, to focus on potential threats. They also found that dopamine is key to the process: It is released in the brain’s prefrontal cortex when danger is perceived, stimulating the prefrontal cortex to redirect its focus to a part of the brain that responds to threats.
“The prefrontal cortex has long been thought to be important for attention and higher cognitive functions (planning, prioritizing, decision-making etc.). It’s as though dopamine is the signal that tells the router to switch over to sending information down the pathway for escape-related behavior,” says Kay Tye, an MIT associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.
When this circuit is off-balance, it could trigger anxious and paranoid behavior, possibly underlying some of the symptoms seen in schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression, Tye says.
Tye is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Nov. 7 issue of Nature. The lead authors are former graduate student Caitlin Vander Weele, postdoc Cody Siciliano, and research scientist Gillian Matthews.
Above: The threat of a cat is magnified by dopamine (shown in molecular form). Credit: Elijah Lee/Biorender.io