Brian Sullivan

People have typically viewed the benefits that accrue with social status primarily from the perspective of external rewards. A new paper
in the February 1st issue of Biological Psychiatry, published by Elsevier suggests that there are internal rewards as well.

Dr. Martinez and colleagues found that increased social status and
increased social support correlated with the density of dopamine D2/D3
receptors in the striatum, a region of the brain that plays a central
role in reward and motivation, where dopamine plays a critical role in
both of these behavioral processes.

The researchers looked at social status and social support in
normal healthy volunteers who were scanned using positron emission
tomography (PET), a technology that allowed them to image dopamine type
2 receptors in the brain.

This data suggests that people who achieve greater
social status are more likely to be able to experience life as
rewarding and stimulating because they have more targets for dopamine
to act upon within the striatum.

Dr. Martinez explains their findings: "We showed that low
levels of dopamine receptors were associated with low social status and
that high levels of dopamine receptors were associated with higher
social status. The same type of association was seen with the
volunteer's reports of social support they experience from their
friends, family, or significant other."

Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry
commented, "These data shed interesting light into the drive to achieve
social status, a basic social process. It would make sense that people
who had higher levels of D2 receptors, i.e., were more highly motivated
and engaged by social situations, would be high achievers and would
have higher levels of social support."

These data also may have implications for understanding the
vulnerability to alcohol and substance abuse, as the work of Dr. Nora
Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and
colleagues suggests that low levels of D2/D3 receptors may contribute
to the risk for alcoholism among individuals who have family members
who abuse alcohol. The current data suggest that vulnerable individuals
with low D2/D3 receptors may be vulnerable to lower social status and
social supports, and these social factors have previously been
suggested as contributors to the risk for alcohol and substance use.

These findings are particularly exciting because they put
human neurobiology into a social context, and we humans are
fundamentally social creatures. It is in these social contexts that the
biological effects on behavior obtain their real meaning.

Martinez et al. "Dopamine Type 2/3 Receptor Availability in the Striatum and Social Status in Human Volunteers." Biological Psychiatry, 2010; 67 (3): 275 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.07.037
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