Dr. Robert Malenka: How Your Brain’s Reward Circuits Drive Your Choices | Huberman Lab Podcast

Dr. Robert Malenka: How Your Brain’s Reward Circuits Drive Your Choices | Huberman Lab Podcast thumbnail

Added: Jul 12, 2023

In this episode of the Huberman Lab podcast, host Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine, interviews Dr. Robert Malenka, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Malenka is a renowned researcher in the field of neuroplasticity and has made significant contributions to understanding how reward systems in the brain function.

The discussion begins by exploring the role of the brain's reward circuitry, particularly the dopamine system, in shaping our emotional experiences and memories. The nucleus accumbens, a key part of the reward circuitry, receives inputs from various brain regions involved in memory, emotions, and decision-making. Dr. Malenka explains that the prefrontal cortex, often considered a higher executive function area, is closely connected to these ancient brain structures and plays a crucial role in setting rules and regulating our responses to different situations. The conversation then turns to addiction, with Dr. Malenka highlighting the complex nature of this phenomenon. He explains that addiction is influenced by factors such as the addictive liability of a substance, individual susceptibility, and the plasticity of the dopamine system. Drugs of abuse can cause lasting changes in the connections and activity of dopamine neurons and nucleus accumbens neurons, leading to an increased propensity for addiction. However, addiction is not solely determined by one exposure; it is a combination of genetic, environmental, and individual factors. The discussion also touches on the topic of exercise and its effects on the brain's reward system. Dr. Malenka and Huberman reflect on their personal experiences with exercise, noting that while it may be initially aversive, it ultimately leads to feelings of well-being and pleasure. They contrast this with the response to drugs like cocaine, which can initially be pleasurable but have negative consequences in the long run. Moving on to social connection and empathy, Dr. Malenka explains that social interaction is highly rewarding and involves the dopamine and serotonin systems in the brain. His lab has studied the role of oxytocin, a hormone involved in social behaviors, and its modulation of dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is found to be crucial in mediating social interaction and reward, as well as empathy and pro-social decision-making. Understanding the neurobiological basis of empathy can contribute to enhancing empathy and compassion in society. The conversation also delves into the use of substances like MDMA and psychedelics in the context of social interactions and mental health. Dr. Malenka discusses the potential therapeutic benefits of MDMA, highlighting its pro-social and empathogenic effects mediated by the serotonin system. However, he emphasizes the need for caution and rigorous research when studying these substances, as they can have addictive liabilities and potential dangers. Overall, the podcast provides a comprehensive overview of various topics related to neuroplasticity, reward systems, social connection, and empathy. Dr. Malenka's expertise and insights shed light on the intricate workings of the brain and the potential applications of this knowledge in addressing addiction and promoting positive social interactions.


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