Researchers have created a drug that makes people more sensitive to inequality, more likely to share resources and generally more compassionate - in other words, it makes them kinder. And the potential is already blowing my selfish little brain.
The drug, called tolcapone, prolongs the effect of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, a region involved in the regulation of complex thought and our emotions. And early tests suggest that it encourages people who take it to be more fair-minded when it comes to money.
The researchers have published their findings in Current Biology, and hope that the drug could provide insight into how disorders such as schizophrenia or addiction are regulated.
"Our hope is that medications targeting social function may someday be used to treat these disabling conditions," said one of the study leaders, Andrew Kayser, from the University of California, San Francisco, US, in a press release.
The team gave 35 participants either tolcapone or a placebo across two separate visits. Tolcapone is already approved by the FDA for the treatment of Parkinson's disease, and changes the neurochemistry of the brain by prolonging the effect of dopamine, the hormone associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex.
The participants were then given a simple economic game to play, where they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient. Those who had been given tolcapone ended up splitting the money with the strangers in a fairer way than those who had taken the placebo, the research revealed.
"We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one's personality," said one of the researchers, Ming Hsu, from the University of California, Berkeley, in the release. "Our study doesn't reject this notion, but it does show how that trait can be systematically affected by targeting specific neurochemical pathways in the human brain."
The researchers then used computational modelling to investigate what seemed to be driving tolcapone-takers to give more money to a stranger, and found that, under the drug's influence, players were more sensitive to and less tolerant of social inequality.
Previous research has shown that economic inequality is regulated by our prefrontal cortex. The new study backs up that find, and also suggests that we might be able to change it.
"We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry," said the first author of the aper, Ignacio Sáez, in the release. "Studies in the past decade have shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations. What we show here is one brain 'switch' we can affect."
The whole ethical can of worms that come with changing a person's behaviour chemically aside, we can definitely think of a few people who could benefit from the drug.