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The cerebellum's hidden roles in social and reward-driven behavior

January 17, 2019

The cerebellum may regulate sociability and reward-driven behavior by controlling the release of dopamine, according to a new study. The results reveal an important and previously unappreciated role for this brain region in cognitive and emotional control, and they help explain the observed connections between cerebellar damage or abnormalities and various forms of mental and social challenges. "This work ... opens new perspectives, not just for interpreting the function of the cerebellum, but also for understanding the brain and discovering new potential therapies for brain diseases affecting modern society," writes Egidio D'Angelo in a related Perspective. Generally known for its primary function in coordinating and regulating movements, recent research has suggested that the cerebellum also takes part in a number of non-motor functions, including cognitive and emotional processing. It has also been implicated in mental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia, and damage to this brain region has resulted in various forms of abnormal social behavior. Despite these observations, the role that the cerebellum plays in these conditions remains unknown. Ilaria Carta and colleagues explored the possibility of a link between the cerebellum and reward processing in the brains of mice and discovered a direct pathway between the cerebellum and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a small region of the brain responsible for conveying dopamine to the prefrontal cortex. According to Carta et al., the cerebello-VTA pathway is powerful enough to allow projections from the cerebellum to regulate behaviors by controlling the release of dopamine. The results illuminate a mechanism that enables the cerebellum to contribute to non-motor social and reward-driven behaviors.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

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