A model of the way the brain releases dopamine, which could be used to understand drug addiction and treat schizophrenia, has been successfully created by researchers at the University of Copenhagen.
Dopamine is involved in a number of processes that control the way we behave. If the action results in its release, one is likely to repeat it - this stands true for eating and even taking drugs.
Scientists believe that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia can be linked to dopamine imbalances.
"It can take a split second to learn something, but a cell that releases dopamine works slowly. If you look at a lighthouse that flashes at a slow frequency, you might not notice right away that the light was turned off," said Jakob Kisbye Dreyer of the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, the Faculty of Health Sciences.
"Likewise, the arguments against dopamine as an aid to learning have focused on the slow feedback time when you experience something bad, and that it is too slow for the brain to make a connection. Our model shows that the collective signal from many cells provides a rapid enough reaction to influence learning," he added.
The dopamine model's predictions, created as part of a unique collaborative effort among physicists, mathematicians and neurobiologists, are supported by observations made in animal models.
"As soon as we are certain that the model is correct, we can begin applying it to dopamine-related illnesses such as drug addiction and schizophrenia," said Dreyer.
The study is published in Journal of Neuroscience.