New Brain Research Describes Surprising Role the Cerebellum Plays in Reward Processing and Social Behaviors

Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have proven that the cerebellum region of the human brain helps to regulate the brain’s reward circuitry.  The cerebellum has always been understood as the movement center of the brain, coordinating and facilitating motor skills so this finding is very new and, more importantly, invokes new ideas about reward processing and even social behaviors. Most importantly, this new understanding about the cerebellum could help lead to new strategies for diagnosing and treating addiction. 

Now, existing studies had already hinted that the cerebellum has more responsibilities than just mobility. Indeed, at least one MRI study assessing brain activity found that those who are amid addiction recovery, who were also shown images associated with their personal addiction, had heightened activity in the cerebellum. Furthermore, scientists determined that this intensity could correlate with relapse risk.  This was just one piece of a preponderance of evidence that suggested, at the time, the cerebellum’s roe in reward processing.  

In addition, research has shown that abnormalities in the cerebellum have associations with autism and schizophrenia and even substance abuse disorders; and brain activation in this region has been linked with motivation and social and emotional behaviors as well as reward learning. These can all be disrupted during an psychiatric disorder episode. 

The United States National Institutes of Health National Institute of Mental Health funded the research, which has been published in the journal Science.

According to NIMH director, Joshua Gordon MD, PhD comments, “This type of research is fundamental to deepening our understanding of how brain circuit activity relates to mental illnesses.  Findings like the ones described in this paper help us learn more about how the brain works, a key first step on the path towards developing new treatments.” 

NIMH Social and Affective Neuroscience Program chief Janine Simmons, MD, PhD also notes that the role of the cerebellar circuitry, in regards to mental health and its related behaviors, is not something we have studied very much.  It is, however, an area where scientists have begun to show interest.  

Finally, research lead Dr. Kamran Khodakhah, PhD—from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine—comments, “Cerebellar abnormalities are also linked to a number of other mental disorders such as schizophrenia. We want to find out whether this pathway also plays a role in those disorders.”