Issue 2
Monday, 06 April 2020
Charles Darwin University
Dr Luca Aquili of the College of Health and Human Sciences
Dr Luca Aquili of the College of Health and Human Sciences

Flexibility key when you take a wrong turn: researcher

By Andrew Hall

Neuroscientist Dr Luca Aquili is compiling a body of evidence that dopamine, which functions as a hormone and a neurotransmitter, plays a more important part in cognitive flexibility than previously understood.

Cognitive flexibility is one of our behavioural functions that has been described as the “mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously”.

It is an “executive function” that allows us to come up with alternative plans to meet our goals and/or requirements. The ability to adapt quickly to new situations increases a person’s brain function and resilience to stress.

“Up until the 1990s and 2000s people thought that dopamine was responsible only for our experience of pleasure,” Dr Aquili said. “But my research is suggesting that dopamine is also important for learning and an essential factor in facilitating cognitive flexibility,” Dr Aquili said.

“My experiments demonstrate that dopamine is not only integral for feelings of pleasure, but also an important teaching and learning trigger.

“By looking at variables in the brain’s production of dopamine, I’m hoping to narrow down the likely candidates that are causally responsible for the feedback mechanism that alerts you to change your course of action whenever you make an error.

“In future, the research may lead to interventions that improve people’s ability to quickly adapt to new situations.”

Dr Aquili said his methodology used non-invasive brain stimulation – with pharmacological manipulations of dopamine and the genes that regulated dopamine production – to understand the neural relationships.

Originally from Italy, Dr Aquili recently joined Charles Darwin University’s College of Health and Human Sciences as a Senior Lecturer in Psychology.

He completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow in Japan. He moved from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK to Darwin.