Dopamine promotes cognitive effort by biasing the benefits versus costs of cognitive work

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Science  20 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1362-1366
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz5891

Responsible use of psychostimulants

Psychostimulants have a place in the therapy of attentional disorders. However, they are also widely used off-label to enhance cognitive performance, and their mechanisms of action remain elusive. Westbrook et al. studied the effects of these drugs and concurrently measured striatal dopamine synthesis capacity in young, healthy participants (see the Perspective by Janes). They administered a placebo, methylphenidate (a dopamine and noradrenaline reuptake blocker), and sulpiride (a selective D2 receptor antagonist) while participants made explicit cost-benefit decisions about whether to engage in cognitive effort. Higher dopamine synthesis capacity in the caudate nucleus was associated with greater willingness to allocate cognitive effort. In addition, methylphenidate and sulpiride increased subjective values and motivation to work specifically for people with low dopamine synthesis capacity. Cognition-enhancing drugs may thus act at the motivational level rather than directly boosting cognition per se.

Science, this issue p. 1362; see also p. 1300


Stimulants such as methylphenidate are increasingly used for cognitive enhancement but precise mechanisms are unknown. We found that methylphenidate boosts willingness to expend cognitive effort by altering the benefit-to-cost ratio of cognitive work. Willingness to expend effort was greater for participants with higher striatal dopamine synthesis capacity, whereas methylphenidate and sulpiride, a selective D2 receptor antagonist, increased cognitive motivation more for participants with lower synthesis capacity. A sequential sampling model informed by momentary gaze revealed that decisions to expend effort are related to amplification of benefit-versus-cost information attended early in the decision process, whereas the effect of benefits is strengthened with higher synthesis capacity and by methylphenidate. These findings demonstrate that methylphenidate boosts the perceived benefits versus costs of cognitive effort by modulating striatal dopamine signaling.

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