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New study reveals serotonin promotes patience

Patience is a fundamental virtue for self-control and future success. Learning to suppress the impulse of instant gratification plays a pivotal role in our evolution [1]. At Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), serotonin's effect on patience is at the core of a recent study conducted by Dr. Katsuhiko Miyazaki and Dr. Kayoko Miyazaki from the Neural Computation Unit.

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is "one of the most famous modulators of regulating mood, sleep-wake cycles, and appetite," said Dr. Katsuhiko Miyazaki. New research conclusively demonstrates its role in modulating behaviour by stimulating the front part of the brain. This study showed that the release of serotonin “also plays a crucial role in promoting patience” [2].

Serotonin promotes patience in mice

Serotonin's effect on patience when waiting for a reward was at the core of a new study published in Science Advances. This study pinpointed areas in the front part of the brain that promotes patience through serotonergic pathways. You can imagine this evolutionary adaptation being hugely beneficial to hunter-gatherers attempting to snare food and its role in innovation!

"Patience, persistence, and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success." – Napoleon Hill

Novel research methods

The scientists bred genetically engineered mice that had serotonin-releasing neurons with a light-sensitive protein. Serotonin was released by shining light, using an optical fibre implanted in the brain.

Stimulating these serotonin-releasing neurons while the mice were waiting for food increased their waiting time. The strongest effects were seen when the probability of receiving a reward was high but when the reward timing was uncertain. "For serotonin to promote patience, the mice had to be confident that a reward would come but uncertain about when it would arrive," said Dr. Miyazaki.

Low serotonin may lead to impulsive behaviour

In 2011, the University of Cambridge published a brain imaging study that showed serotonin deficiency elicited impulsive behaviour such as aggression. They demonstrated that serotonin in the human brain helps regulate behaviour and emotions during social decision making [3].

Our knowledge of serotonin is becoming increasingly important

The role of serotonin is not a settled science. The study was able to demonstrate that serotonin responds differently in different regions of the brain. "Two brain areas are calculating the probability of a reward independently from each other and that these independent calculations are then combined to determine how long the mice will wait," explained Dr. Miyazaki. "This sort of complementary system allows animals to behave more flexibly to changing environments." Increasing our knowledge of how different brain areas are affected by serotonin could have vital implications for health conditions such as depression, nutraceutical, and drug delivery.

You can read about 5-HTP's role in serotonin enhancement here

[1]Science Daily (2020) Tracing evolution of self-control. [2]Miyazaki et al (2020) Serotonergic projections to the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices differentially modulate waiting for future rewards. Science Advances. [3]University of Cambridge (2011) Serotonin levels affect the brain's response to anger.

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