Neurofeedback-mediated self-regulation of the dopaminergic midbrain
The dopaminergic system is involved in reward encoding and reinforcement learning. Dopaminergic neurons from this system in the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area complex (SN/VTA) fire in response to unexpected reinforcing cues. The goal of this study was to investigate whether individuals can gain voluntary control of SN/VTA activity, thereby potentially enhancing dopamine release to target brain regions. Neurofeedback and mental imagery were used to self-regulate the SN/VTA. Real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rtfMRI) provided abstract visual feedback of the SN/VTA activity while the subject imagined rewarding scenes. Skin conductance response (SCR) was recorded as a measure of emotional arousal. To examine the effect of neurofeedback, subjects were assigned to either receiving feedback directly proportional (n=15, veridical feedback) or inversely proportional (n=17, inverted feedback) to SN/VTA activity. Both groups of subjects were able to up-regulate SN/VTA activity initially without feedback. Veridical feedback improved the ability to up-regulate SN/VTA compared to baseline while inverted feedback did not. Additional dopaminergic regions were activated in both groups. The ability to self-regulate SN/VTA was differentially correlated with SCR depending on the group, suggesting an association between emotional arousal and neurofeedback performance. These findings indicate that SN/VTA can be voluntarily activated by imagery and voluntary activation is further enhanced by neurofeedback. The findings may lead the way towards a non-invasive strategy for endogenous control of dopamine.