Thrill Seekers Lack Brakes In The Brain

  by  |  March 11th, 2009  |  Published in All, Brain & Psychology, Featured


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New research gives a possible explanation for why some of us are thrill seekers and others like to play it safe. The study found that some of us can’t control the release of a certain brain chemical.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: David Zald, Vanderbilt University
Produced by Sunita Reed– Edited by Sunita
Reed and Chris Bergendorff Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc

"Adrenaline Junkies" Actually Prefer Dopamine

Wouldn’t it be amazing if researchers could scan our brains and see whether we have thrill seeking personality traits? Vanderbilt University psychologist David Zald has come pretty close. He has conducted a study that links thrill seeking behavior with a difference in specific part of the dopamine system in the brain.

“Dopamine does a number of different things. Probably most importantly though it’s involved in motivation and reward,” explains Zald. “And it’s the critical chemical in terms of people really wanting to do things.”

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Brain scans of a low thrillseeker (left) and high thrill seeker (right) show differences in the autoreceptor concentration. Image courtesy: David Zald

Specific brain cells, or neurons, make and release dopamine. When dopamine is released its target is specific dopamine receptors on other brain cells in the pleasure centers of the brain. There have been some studies of these receptors in people. But Zald wanted to look at a different structure on the dopamine releasing brain cells themselves, called autoreceptors, which function as brakes to stop the release of dopamine.

Zald knew that studies in rodents showed that those with reduced brakes were more likely to explore in novel environments but were also more likely to self-administer cocaine or amphetamines. He also knew there was some limited evidence that individual differences in dopamine functioning was linked to novelty seeking.

He and his colleagues asked 34 healthy male and female volunteers to fill out a questionnaire that measures a person’s tendency for novelty seeking.

“The scale that we used measured things like how much the person wants to try new things, how free they are in terms of spending money, and the person’s willingness to be spontaneous or even break rules,” Zald explains.

Then his team scanned the brains of the volunteers using PET scanners. They measured the number of autoreceptors, the structures that act like brakes on dopamine release. As they wrote in the “Journal of Neuroscience” low thrill seekers had many brakes while high thrill seekers had very few. In the brain scans in the image above comparing a low and high thrill seeker, the white arrows point to the autoreceptors, which show up as bright blue.

“What we think that means is people who really don’t have the brakes on their dopamine system, they’re really going to release more dopamine and have more of the rewarding effects of dopamine,” says Zald.

Also on ScienCentral

Zald says that there are positive and negative aspects to the novelty seeking personality trait.

“Thrill seeking is one of the things that leads people to explore new things, to discover new things,” says Zald. “The world would be a boring place if we didn’t have people who were willing to take the risks because they were so interested or drawn to the new and exciting.”

But people with the novelty seeking trait are also at a higher risk of doing drugs. Zald wants to do further studies to find out why some people take such deadly risks and others find ways to balance their need for excitement in healthier ways.

And Zald has a word of advice for parents: “For a child who is a thrill seeker, what you really want to do is direct them into activities which will give them those thrills. For instance having them learn to do rock climbing would be a good example. And if they can get those thrills through something where they maintain a reasonable level of safety, that may be a draw that is enough for them so they never feel the need or desire to start experimenting with drugs.”

Publication: Journal of Neuroscience
Authors: David H. Zald, Ronald L. Cowan, Patrizia Riccardi, Ronald M. Baldwin, M. Sib Ansari, Rui Li, Evan S. Shelby, Clarence E. Smith, Maureen McHugo, and Robert M. Kessler
Research funded by: National Institute of Drug Abuse

Elsewhere on the Web:

How Stuff Works: How Your Brain Works

The Science Behind Drug Abuse



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Responses

  1. Jim Ryan says:

    March 11th, 2009 at 8:29 pm (#)

    Not true, it’s just that in order to gain more, we must go to the outer edges or nothing new presents itself.

  2. Jim Ryan says:

    March 11th, 2009 at 8:32 pm (#)

    In order for our supercomputer to work, we must push it to the limits every single day and nothing else works, but the truth and the proof. Maybe you’d like some proof?

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    March 12th, 2009 at 2:51 am (#)

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  4. Emergent Culture - The Delusions, the Deluders and “the Truth” says:

    March 18th, 2009 at 1:15 am (#)

    [...] Thrill Seekers Lack Brakes In The Brain New research gives a possible explanation for why some of us are thrill seekers and others like to play it safe. The study found that some of us can’t control the release of a certain brain chemical. [...]

  5. Thrill seekers lack brakes in the brain « The Brain Blog says:

    July 26th, 2009 at 12:37 pm (#)

    [...] Source: ScienCentral [...]

  6. Adventurer Intelligence Criteria « The Adventurer Intelligence says:

    April 19th, 2010 at 3:32 pm (#)

    [...] This link provides more information and a video explaining the research on dopamine production and i… [...]

  7. .50 Caliber William Tell | Booty Call U says:

    November 4th, 2010 at 12:20 pm (#)

    [...] was recently learned that certain human beings are actually genetically predisposed to seek thrill. Research has shown that their brains propensity for the effects of dopamine is much higher, which [...]

  8. Confessions of a Surf Addict | TheInertia.com says:

    February 14th, 2011 at 12:39 am (#)

    [...] those of drug users, including the experience of withdrawal symptoms. Studies also indicate that thrill-seekers and risk-takers may lack “brakes”, auto-receptors in their brain cells that limit dopamine, and thus will feel its pleasurable [...]

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    June 18th, 2011 at 6:44 pm (#)

    “Thrill Seekers” not only run far higher chances of drug addiction, they are far more likely to be criminals, sexually promiscuous, gamblers & psychopaths! I met a woman who was all those things, who, over 9 years weaved a web of deceit & permanently destroyed my life. I was a professional creative artist, but “thrill seekers” aren’t just people who like a roller coaster at an amusement park.

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  12. ConsultingCryptanalyst says:

    March 21st, 2012 at 9:49 pm (#)

    I find this study fascinating as a definite thrill-seeking personality myself, and because I take amphetamine-based stimulant medication (as prescribed by a psychiatrist) to help control my ADHD symptoms. Others I know who have ADHD also tend to express that they too thrill-seek, and that it seems to be a common correlation in their experience with others with ADHD too. I have a family history of thrill-seeking behaviors and of drug abuse, so I know that I cannot experiment as others may be able to semi-safely do, but I find other ways of getting the thrills I crave, without drugs. Drug abuse, however, isn’t the only negative result of thrill-seeking, and all types of negative behaviors that result from thrill-seeking should be studied, I think. For example, I know people who get their kicks by getting themselves into dodgy situations and then try to talk their way/get out of them: that’ clearly is not good either, and there are many more examples of possibly dangerous methods of thrill-seeking besides drugs which should be warned against, as sometimes it may not be entirely apparent to a thrill-seeker that what they’re doing is thrill-seeking and potentially dangerous.

  13. Christine Cassel says:

    April 25th, 2012 at 3:28 pm (#)

    Wow, this is me, how can i get tested? if there medication that can help teens or adults?

  14. Bhawk says:

    January 17th, 2013 at 7:45 pm (#)

    Christine there is a test on the bbc’s website for sensation seekers. I found it on the Confessions of a surf addict link that is on the comment above, I an definitely a sensation seeker and scored 37 of 40, seems pretty accurate.

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