LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Motivation can often mean the difference between success or failure, achieving goals or wandering aimlessly, and positive well-being or unhappiness. “What motivates you” is often asked by life coaches of clients – and it turns out that it could unwittingly be your health. A new study reveals that motivation may depend on the amount of oxidative stress your cells experience.
Researchers in Switzerland say this unhealthy imbalance in cells can reduce motivation and lead to poorer performance in certain tasks. However, proper nutrition can reverse this trend, and a particular antioxidant may be the key. A team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne has discovered that a protein called glutathione (GSH) displays a vital link to motivation and better performance in effort-related tasks.
“We assessed the relationships between metabolites in the nucleus accumbens – a key region of the brain – and motivated performance,” says Professor Carmen Sandi from EPFL’s School of Life Sciences in a press release. “We then turned to animals to understand the mechanism and probe the causality between the found metabolite and performance, also proving that nutritional interventions alter behavior through this pathway.”
What is oxidative stress?
The study authors explain that when cells “eat” various molecules for fuel, they produce various toxic waste products in the form of highly reactive molecules, called oxidant species. Fortunately, the cells have ways of eliminating these waste products and restoring the balance within the cells. When cells can’t eliminate all the waste, it causes a harmful imbalance – which scientists call oxidative stress.
Brain cells often experience oxidative stress due to its neurometabolic processes. Antioxidants are the “cleansing team” that balances healthy cells. With that in mind, the researchers note that glutathione is the brain’s most important antioxidant.
To find the link to motivation, the team used a method called proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy to quantify the biochemistry in this specific region of the brain. The noninvasive technique measured GSH levels in the nucleus accumbens of humans and rats. They then compared these measures to each subject’s performance on a standardized effort-related task that measures motivation.
The results show that higher levels of GSH in the nucleus accumbens display an association with better and more consistent performance during these tasks.
To prove that more GSH has a direct link to more motivation, the team then injected rats with a GSH blocker, reducing the production of this antioxidant. These rats displayed less motivation and performed worse on reward-incentive tests.
Could a daily supplement give you more motivation?
Conversely, giving rats a nutritional supplement of the GSH precursor, N-acetylcysteine — which increases GSH levels in the nucleus accumbens — caused the animals to perform better on motivational tests. This opens the door to creating a new supplement for patients lacking motivation due to poor diet.
“Our study provides new insights into how brain metabolism relates to behavior and suggests nutritional interventions targeting the key oxidative process as ideal interventions to facilitate intense endurance,” the study authors conclude, stating that their findings “suggest that improving accumulated antioxidant function may be a feasible approach to boosting motivation.
“N-acetylcysteine, the nutritional supplement we gave in our study, can also be synthesized in the body from its precursor, cysteine,” adds Sandi. “Cysteine is found in ‘high protein foods’ such as meat, chicken, fish or seafood. Other low protein sources are eggs, whole grain foods such as bread and cereals, and some vegetables such as broccoli, onions and legumes.
“Of course, there are ways other than N-acetylcysteine to increase GSH levels in the body, but their relationship to levels in the brain – and particularly in the nucleus accumbens – is largely unknown. Our study represents a proof of principle that dietary N-acetylcysteine can increase GSH levels in the brain and facilitate effortful behavior.
The results are published in the journal eLife.
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