May 2, 2024

Medical student’s study could have implications for treating conditions related to reward processing, including addiction and mood disorders

A Wayne State University School of Medicine student is a member of a research team that revealed when dopamine neurons project to the part of the brain involved in processing emotions and memories it enhances the encoding of memories associated with specific rewards.

Yousif Jafar, Class of 2026

“Essentially, when dopamine is released in this area of the brain, it makes the brain remember specific rewards more strongly,” said Yousif Jafar, a third-year medical student who spent five years on the project.

Dopamine projections to the basolateral amygdala drive the encoding of identity-specific reward memories,” was recently published in Nature Neuroscience.

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that plays a big role in feeling pleasure and motivation. It is often associated with rewards and reinforcement. The basolateral amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions, especially those related to fear and reward.

“We wanted to understand how dopamine affects the formation of memories related to specific rewards, particularly the connection between dopamine and the basolateral amygdala. We wanted to see if dopamine influences how the brain encodes memories about rewards, particularly those tied to specific contexts or identities,” Jafar said. “This discovery helps us understand how our brains form memories about rewarding experiences, like the taste of your favorite dessert or the joy of winning a game. It’s like knowing how your brain files away the good stuff for future reference. It could have implications for understanding and potentially treating conditions related to reward processing, like addiction or certain mood disorders.”

Jafar started on the project while attending the University of California, Los Angelas, as an undergraduate. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience in June 2022, and arrived at the WSU School of Medicine in Detroit a month later. The Class of 2026 Student Senate vice president is considering a career as an ophthalmologist.

“One of the main reasons I enjoyed studying neuroscience was because there is so much room to learn and pioneer in the field. We really have barely scratched the surface of our understanding, and that leaves room for people to explore an infinite number of questions,” he said. “Particularly with this work, I think it’s really exciting to be able to take an everyday concept such as seeing a fast-food sign and analyzing the cascade of thoughts that follow (like how you felt last time you ate there) and how they occur.”

The next step in the field is creating a comprehensive brain map of reward processing and understanding what circuits are critical for encoding the different parts of rewards, such as value or motivation, he said.

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