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Flexibility key when you take a wrong turn: researcher

Dr Luca Aquili
Neuroscientist Dr Luca Aquili

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.

Neuroscientist Dr Luca Aquili, who recently joined Charles Darwin University’s College of Health and Human Sciences as a Lecturer in Psychology, 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.

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

He said his work was building on the research of Cambridge University neuroscience professor Wolfram Schultz, whose research with primates showed that dopamine neurons were initially activated by the subject being rewarded for particular behaviours.

However, when the reward itself was preceded by a predictor of that reward – a visual or auditory cue, for instance – dopamine was activated by the anticipation of the reward.

“These experiments demonstrate that dopamine is not only integral for feelings of pleasure, but also an important teaching and learning trigger,” Dr Aquili said.

“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.”

Originally from Italy, Dr Aquili 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.

“I am very keen to take advantage of the relative safety and freedom of Australia’s northernmost capital, as well as the research opportunities at Charles Darwin University,” Dr Aquili said.