Feeling disappointed? Blame (or not) your brain.

Now that I have your attention in lieu of that catchy title (yes, I am patting my back) let’s start by saying that the reward for finishing this post would be something awesome. I am not saying what it is, but know that it is awesome.

Speaking of rewards here’s how your brain typically works, you see something or predict a particular scenario that goes your way and you have a concert of certain neurotransmitters in your brain with some sliding down the pole while others continue to beat the drum to an inch of its life. And right now I am wondering how many neuroscientists are shaking their heads at my analogy and crying “YOUTH” with their fists raised.

Yes, this is a gross oversimplification of the beautiful mess that your brain is, but I am only one person with one brain and lacking in coffee this is what I could come up with. Yes, you have your serotonin, glutamate, acetylcholine (love that by the way), dopamine, histamine and norepinephrine making this feeling business a whole lot more complicated. But for now I will stick with dopamine and my buddy serotonin.

In a not-so-recent study by Matsumoto and Hikosaka (2007 to be exact) it was found that a teeny-tiny structure called the lateral habenula buried deep in the epithalamus region of the brain plays an interesting role in how we respond to reward and a lack of it. When (highly trained) monkeys were rewarded for a particular task their habenula was pretty quiet while dopamine partied out hard. When the monkeys were denied a reward the opposite happened, with dopamine neurons firing less and the habenula showing increased activity. This led to the researchers proposing that dopamine could be related to positive-reward response and the habenula in negative-reward response.

Long story short, the disappointment that you might feel when I tell you that there is no reward is most likely because of the neurons in your habenula firing that can tamp down your feel-good dopamine neurons. Nothing to be done about that folks, short of sticking an electrode in your brain but then that brings up a whole lot of problems like “WHY IS THERE AN ELECTRODE IN MY BRAIN?” and addiction issues.


We are having a series of guest lectures for our neuroscience month and this felt like an interesting research. The article I am referring to can be found here ‘Lateral habenula as a source of negative reward signals in dopamine neurons‘. It’s behind paywall so apologies if you can’t access it.

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