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BACKGROUND: Sensation-seeking is a trait that constitutes an important vulnerability factor for a variety of psychopathologies with high social cost. However, little is understood either about the mechanisms underlying motivation for intense sensory experiences or their neuropharmacological modulation in humans. METHODS: Here, we first evaluate a novel paradigm to investigate sensation-seeking in humans. This test probes the extent to which participants choose either to avoid or self-administer an intense tactile stimulus (mild electric stimulation) orthogonal to performance on a simple economic decision-making task. Next we investigate in a different set of participants whether this behavior is sensitive to manipulation of dopamine D2 receptors using a within-subjects, placebo-controlled, double-blind design. RESULTS: In both samples, individuals with higher self-reported sensation-seeking chose a greater proportion of mild electric stimulation-associated stimuli, even when this involved sacrifice of monetary gain. Computational modelling analysis determined that people who assigned an additional positive economic value to mild electric stimulation-associated stimuli exhibited speeding of responses when choosing these stimuli. In contrast, those who assigned a negative value exhibited slowed responses. These findings are consistent with involvement of low-level, approach-avoidance processes. Furthermore, the D2 antagonist haloperidol selectively decreased the additional economic value assigned to mild electric stimulation-associated stimuli in individuals who showed approach reactions to these stimuli under normal conditions (behavioral high-sensation seekers). CONCLUSIONS: These findings provide the first direct evidence of sensation-seeking behavior being driven by an approach-avoidance-like mechanism, modulated by dopamine, in humans. They provide a framework for investigation of psychopathologies for which extreme sensation-seeking constitutes a vulnerability factor.

Original publication




Journal article


Int J Neuropsychopharmacol

Publication Date





D2 antagonist, addiction, dopamine, impulsivity, sensation-seeking, Avoidance Learning, Computer Simulation, Decision Making, Dopamine, Dopamine D2 Receptor Antagonists, Double-Blind Method, Electric Stimulation, Exploratory Behavior, Female, Haloperidol, Humans, Individuality, Male, Models, Economic, Models, Psychological, Motivation, Neuropsychological Tests, Receptors, Dopamine D2, Risk-Taking, Self Stimulation, Sensation, Young Adult