The neurotransmitter dopamine is commonly known for its role in brain networks regulating pleasure and reward.

But many people with disorders that affect the dopamine system, such as Parkinson’s disease or schizophrenia, also struggle with social abilities. These include recognising or understanding the emotions and mental states of others, something scientists call the “theory of mind”.

These social difficulties can significantly impact the social relationships and quality of life of those affected. However, it has remained unclear whether these challenges are directly caused by dopamine imbalances or by other factors that co-occur with these disorders.

Now our new research, published in PLOS Biology, shows that a lack of dopamine seems to directly cause social difficulties. This suggests that dopamine-based drugs could one day also help treat the social difficulties in disorders with dopamine imbalances.

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