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Susan Greenfield's Dopamine Disaster

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Nov 6, 2011 10:09 PMNov 5, 2019 3:27 AM


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It's Susan Greenfield again. Continuing her campaign warning of the dangers of modern technology in terms of their effects on the vulnerable brains of the young, the British neuroscientist and Baroness has written another article. This is the latest of many. None of them have been in peer reviewed academic journals. This one's behind the Great Times Paywall so I can't link to it, but it's called Are video games taking away our identities? The first part of the article is hard to argue against. Either you'll agree with it or you won't. Personally, videogames as Greenfield describes them bear little resemblance to any games that I've played recently. Similarly for her account of the Internet. But maybe this rings true for some:

Screen images do not depend for their impact on seeing one thing in terms of anything else. Their premium lies invariably in their raw sensory content... we are perhaps heading towards a much weaker sense of identity by engaging in a world where we are the passive recipient of senses and where there is no fixed narrative of past and future but an atomised thrill of the moment. One could even suggest that the constant self-centred readout on Twitter belies a more childlike insecurity, an existential crisis.

Greenfield then moves into discussing the brain, and this is where the science comes in. This is her "home turf" - she's Professor of physiology at Oxford. Yet it's a shambles.

There is one alarm bell ringing, which suggests that increasing 2D screen existence may be having undesirable effects: it is the threefold increase over the past decade in prescriptions for drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

While this could be due to changes in doctors’ prescribing procedures, or indeed to a greater recognition and medicalisation of attentional problems, a third possibility could indeed be that if the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action-reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with each press of a key, then such rapid interchange might lead to a shorter attention span. The human condition can be basically divided into two alternating modes, first described by Euripedes... the rational “bread force”, characterised by a strong cognitive take on the world — a personalised past, present and future, in turn related to an active prefrontal cortex and lower levels of the brain chemical dopamine; and the “wine force”, more the state of young children or those adults indulging in “letting themselves go”, in situations perhaps involving wine, women and song, where a strong sensory environment demands less reflection, more passive reaction.

...An increase in physiological arousal can be linked to excessive release of dopamine. Could the screen experience be tilting this ancient balance in favour of the more infantile, senses-driven brain state?

Greenfield says that high dopamine and low prefrontal cortex activity is associated with irrationality and a deficit in attention. Video games are causing a flood of dopamine and causing ADHD. That would make sense, if ADHD was caused by too much dopamine, and if drugs for ADHD reduced dopamine release. The problem is that it's the exact opposite. Drugs for ADHD increase dopamine release and ADHD is widely believed (although it's controversial) to be caused by a dopamine deficit. Greenfield then says "We know too that dopamine suppresses the activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex", but this is a serious oversimplification. Dopamine has complex effects on target neurons. It can inhibit firing, but it can also excite it. It all depends on the conditions. Here's what the authors of an influential scientific review said in 2004: "It is agreed by most researchers is that dopamine is a neuromodulator and is clearly not an excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitter" Some say that dopamine helps to "tune" the prefrontal by increasing the signal to noise ratio - more signal, less noise. Here's one of the most cited papers about dopamine and the PFC: Cognitive deficit caused by regional depletion of dopamine in prefrontal cortex of rhesus monkey. Remember that drugs for ADHD like Ritalin, which are sometimes used illicitly by students without that disorder to help them focus and concentrate, cause dopamine release. If Greenfield were right, it would be the exact opposite.

...[other] people characterised by an underactive prefrontal cortex are those with schizophrenia, this time not due to physical damage but rather a chemical imbalance, in particular an excessive amount of the transmitter dopamine. In schizophrenia, like children, the patient is easily distracted, cannot interpret proverbs, is not strong on metaphor but takes the world literally; it is a vibrant world that can implode on, and overwhelm, the fragile firewall of the schizophrenic mindset.

This again is a serious simplification. Actually, you don't need to be a neuroscientist to work that out. Just recall the earlier bit: Greenfield has said that ADHD is caused by too much dopamine leading to an underactive prefrontal cortex. Now she says that schizophrenia is the same. So why are the symptoms of ADHD completely different from schizophrenia? Why is it, in fact, that Ritalin and similar dopamine releasing drugs help with ADHD, but can make schizophrenia worse? As a neuroscientist, I can tell you that we don't really know what's going on with dopamine in ADHD or schizophrenia. There's decent evidence that dopamine is involved in schizophrenia, but not in any straightforward sense. Schizophrenia is now believed to be linked to reduced dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, and too much in other areas. As for ADHD, remember: the leading theory is that it's about too little dopamine. Not too much. The only disease that we know certainly is associated with too little dopamine is Parkinson's. Contrary to Greenfield's theory, people with Parkinson's often have cognitive and mood problems as well as the better known difficulties with movements. They're not super intelligent, prefrontal-cortex-wielding geniuses. I appreciate that an opinion piece in the Times is never going to be a rigorously argued scientific paper, but the fact that Greenfield's article contains several claims which are the exact opposite of the truth (or at least of current scientific thinking) calls her credibility into serious question.

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