Friday, October 11, 2013

Status is a drug

Brain uses the same mechanisms to get attached by somebody and to get addicted to drugs. Given these strange connections, it seems that social support and social status have a strong effect upon the brain, putting us in the position of becoming “addicted to power” and “addicted to public image”. And similar to the sensation of “being high” triggered by drugs, power gives us the sentiment of being above other humans and untouchable.

In these days many people have learnt about the role of body chemicals in romantic love and bonding in general. Despite the initially shocking discovery that human brain uses almost the same circuits for falling in love and for getting addicted to drugs, this scientific knowledge entered gradually into common sense. In all the women magazines you can find now articles about the “love hormones” oxytocin and vasopressin.  But this is not the full story, not even by far. These two ancient hormones are not the solely chemical involved in attachment, and when we start to get the bigger picture some intriguing facts comes to surface.
For instance, oxytocin works together with another brain’s chemical, the famous neurotransmitter – dopamine.  Oxytocin modulates dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine has several receptors to bind in order to exert its effect. One of them is the D2 receptor. And studies have found that these receptors seem to facilitate mother-child bonding. Dopamine interacts with oxytocin especially in the same brain areas involved in drug addiction, which are full of oxytocin receptors. And, strangely, this interaction materializes in social memory and social recognition. D2 is one of the dopamine receptors, and D1 is another one. Laboratory studies  made at University of Texas have shown that dopamine D2 receptor facilitates the establishment of a pair bond, while the D1 receptor inhibits it. So are not the parents to blame? In addition, after sexual intercourse, the dopamine D1 receptor prevents the male to “move on” from the original pair bond to a new bond with another female. Subsequent to mating-induced pair bonding, D1 receptor density increases at the membrane surface of neurons and this increase maintains monogamy by transforming responses toward other females from affiliative interest into aggressiveness. We should put the picture of this receptor on the wall of the City Hall weddings room. These studies were made on rats but there are human studies too, and one of them, made at Northwestern University in Evanston Illinois, have shown that boys with a mutation of the gene responsible with dopamine D2 receptor (mutation which reduces up to 40% of D2 receptor density in the brain areas involved in drugs addiction) tend to begin their sex life earlier and are less inclined toward developing long-lasting relationships with a partner. These individuals may not want to have children or get married, hence confirming the data from animal studies. I think somebody should invent a phone application able to detect this mutation, what do you think girls?



But is more than this. It is not only attachment connected with brain’s mechanisms of addiction. Is leadership, too. A study made in 2010 at Columbia University found a positive correlation between the ability of dopamine to bind with its receptors D2 and perceived social support in humans. Again the brain region targeted was the same intensively studied in drugs addiction. Their data suggest that D2 receptor binding is associated with an individual’s social capital, which may be regarded as a balance between social status and stress reduction by means of social support. High social rank, a strong feeling of social support and low levels of social avoidance are associated with increased dopamine binding with its D2 receptor. Social rank, strong support from the people around you, and a natural tendency to approach people, and to feel comfortable in social situations….Hmm, looks like leadership to me. And which is the connection with drugs? Studies in monkeys have revealed that when a dominant figure is isolated from the group, there is a drop in D2 receptor density in this brain area, and that individual becomes predisposed toward cocaine addiction. Conversely, when an animal becomes the group leader, D2 receptor density increases, thus reflecting the role of these receptors in social reward perception. Also, monkeys that have been exposed to social stress during adolescence are more likely to take drugs and they have lower dopamine binding at D2 receptor in this part of the brain involved in addiction. So, social status is like a drug? You can become addicted to it? Others revealed the implication of other areas in social status, such as the upper region of the frontal lobe. Therefore, electrical recordings from the neurons in this area, showed a stronger activation of the excitatory synapses in rats with high positions in a group hierarchy, compared to the subordinate ones. So your brain functions better when you are the boss. At least you are more excitable.
To summarize, what do we have here? It seems to be a tight connection in the brain between attachment, social status and brain’s mechanisms involved in addiction, but also in performance. If the first are accomplished, it seems the brain enters in a “high mode”, being more excitable, more eager to explore and conquest. And here are the downsides. Studies have found that people driving expensive cars were more likely than other motorists to cut off drivers and pedestrians at a four-way-stop intersection in the San Francisco Bay Area, UC Berkeley researchers observed. Those findings led to a series of experiments that revealed that people of higher socioeconomic status were also more likely to cheat to win a prize and to have an unethical behavior in a company. Genes regulating social behavior are strongly preserved from insects to people. And the brain’s mechanisms they build seem to have a lot in common, despite the differences in size and form. But it seems that evolution takes us by surprise. What makes you fitter and healthier in animal kingdom is not necessary suitable for traffic rules or management. We have to learn how to control these mechanisms in order not to become a stoned baboon driving a Ferrari.

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