Dopamine and the human brain

Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia University Daphna Shohamy answers the question: What is dopamine?


In my lab, we measure the human brain, which is, of course, incredibly exciting and interesting, but very hard to measure.

So we do that in a number of ways.

We use functional imaging -- it's called functional magnetic resonance imaging -- to image the human brain while it's engaged in cognition and thought and memory formation.

The way we test human subjects is by taking our very big questions about memory and behavior, reducing them to something as simple and specific as possible, and implementing that question in a form of, basically, a computer game, and now we ask people to play this computer game while their brain is being scanned, and that way we can track what's happening in their brain and where as they're engaged in a particular aspect of learning or memory.

What we actually measure with the FMRI are changes in metabolism and oxygenation in the brain, and those images that we see after processing show us where in the brain, or it was an area where there was more metabolism and more activity under a certain condition.

So, for example, where there's more activity when you remember something relative to when you don't remember something.