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A Publication of WTVP

There was an interesting employment research article in the August 17, 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: procrastinating primates (yes, monkeys) were turned into workaholics by temporarily suppressing a gene in the brain circuit involving reward learning. Without the gene, the primates lost their sense of balance between reward and the work required to get it. In other words, suppress the gene and you no longer need the carrot.

Basically, the gene in question creates a receptor for the brain messenger chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a message-carrying chemical associated with rewards, movement, and a variety of other important functions. The study found that by blocking the cells from receiving the gene, it made primates work harder and better at a task. In fact, the blocking of the gene triggered a notable transformation in work ethic.

Previous research has shown that primates, like many of us, tend to slack off initially in working toward a distant goal. In addition, like us, they work more efficiently and make fewer errors as they get closer to being rewarded. Without the dopamine receptor, however, they consistently stayed on task, making fewer errors, because they could no longer predict how their work was going to get them a reward.

Humans and primates both learn by looking at how much work there is and become very adept at estimating how long they have before reward. Therefore, in the study, the primates were taught to release a lever when a spot on a computer screen turned from red to green. The animals knew they had performed the task correctly when the spot turned blue. A visual cue, a gray bar on the screen, got brighter as they progressed through a succession of trials required to get a treat.

When the gene was blocked, the primates were unable to associate the visual cues with the workload or learn how many trials needed to be completed to get the reward. Basically, they became extreme workaholics, regardless of how distant the reward was. This was noticeably out of character for these animals that, like people, tend to procrastinate when they know they'll have to do more work before getting a reward.

The purpose of the study was that it could lead to important discoveries that would impact public health-especially mental illness. The study notes the ability to associate work with reward is disturbed in mental disorders. For example, people who are depressed often feel nothing is worth the work. People with obsessive compulsive disorder work incessantly and, even when rewarded, feel they must repeat the task. In mania, people work feverishly for rewards that aren't worth the trouble to most of us.

Therefore, finding the pivotal role played by this gene and circuit may be of clinical interest. But will some employers take a distinct interest in the work? For instance, would productivity increase with the application of a drug prior to the work shift? Would fewer workers be required? Could some of the more problem workers be controlled? Sounds a bit like Fahrenheit 451. IBI

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