Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz will share the 1 million Brain Prize, regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for their field.
They won for their analysis of how the brain recognises and processes reward — how humans and animals choose outcomes that will satisfy their needs and help them avoid danger.
The capacity to link reward to events and actions is the foundation of human and animal survival, and problems with the processing of reward lie at the heart of many neurological and psychiatric disorders.
The work of the three winners was praised for its insight into human decisionmaking, gambling, drug addiction, compulsive behaviour and schizophrenia. Many regions of the brain process information associated with reward, but one linchpin is a neurotransmitter — or chemical messenger — called dopamine.
Professor Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, realised that the pattern of activity in the brain corresponds to a signal known as a “reward prediction error”. If predictions are wrong, or too pessimistic, reward prediction errors can adjust them to be more optimistic.
Professor Dayan said: “Imagine that you choose between restaurants based on predicting how good they are. Then, if the one you chose is better than expected, the positive prediction error allows you to update your prediction. Next time you are faced with a restaurant choice, you are more likely to pick the one that was better.”
Professor Dolan, who works at the Wellcome Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, has been a leader in imaging the human brain to understand the mechanisms of emotion, learning and decisionmaking. This helps researchers understand psychiatric problems such as behavioural impulsivity and apathy. He has collaborated with Professor Dayan over the past decade.
“One puzzling clinical problem is why some patients treated with drugs that boost dopamine function, for example in Parkinson’s disease, fall prey to pathological gambling,” Professor Dolan said. “Our work has shown that this effect is at least in part due to dopamine amplifying an innate tendency to repeat activities that are rewarding.”
Professor Schultz’s work with monkeys allowed him to develop methods to record activity from neurons — nerve cells in the brain — that use dopamine to transmit information to other neurons.
“This is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work,” he said. “Our dopamine neurons affect our behaviour like little devils in our brain that drive us towards more rewards.”
Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: “This is fantastic news and confirms just how influential the UK is in global neuroscience research.
"It is also particularly gratifying to note that both Professor Dolan and Professor Dayan are keen supporters of the Gatsby/Wellcome Neuroscience initiative at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, ensuring that neuroscience is fully integrated with psychiatric training.”