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The brain chemistry of shyness

22 November 2017

The red fields in these images of the brain show serotonin synthesis in a patient with social anxiety disorder. The neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are central to studying shyness and social

Welcome, Tomas Furmark, Professor in the Department of Psychology.  You’ve received research funding from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences to examine the chemical processes behind shyness and social anxiety disorder. What do we know today about brain chemistry in shyness and social anxiety?

“Well, we know that social anxiety disorder is linked to increased neural activity in the brain’s fear network and alterations in the neurotransmitter serotonin, but also to the brain’s reward system, which is controlled by dopamine.  But we don’t know how it works in detail or how the two transmitter systems interact.”

Tomas Furmark, Professor in the Department of
Psychology, conducts research on the brain
chemistry of shyness.

Why is the brain’s reward system involved in shyness?

“You could say that shyness is the opposite of boldness when it comes to dopamine. People who seek out excitement seem to have increased production of dopamine, which is important for our motivation. An aspect of severe shyness could therefore be low social motivation.”

How will you examine the chemistry of shyness?

“We will examine how people with severe shyness or social anxiety disorder differ from a control group and what happens during treatment. Using positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging (PET and fMRI), we will study how serotonin and dopamine in different parts of the brain differ between the groups before and after treatment. We compare images with how the people feel to determine how social anxiousness interacts with serotonin and dopamine in the brain. By looking at both signalling systems, we hope to also explain more about the causal process.”

But aren’t there drugs for social anxiety disorder?

“Yes, but we currently don’t know how the so-called ‘happy pills’, which inhibit the reuptake of serotonin, work. There is a debate among researchers as to whether they work better than a placebo and if it is worth it to medicate, considering the side effects. Almost all the research on how the drug works in the brain focuses on depression, while we are studying the mechanisms associated with social anxiety. We want to understand why people react the way they do and why problems arise. Then we can understand how to best handle the problem.”


Positron emission tomography (PET)

By marking a substance that can be examined with a radioactive marker, the researcher gets a three-dimensional image of where the substance is located in e.g. the brain.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)

Using powerful magnetism and radio waves, the water molecules in the body emit radio waves that are captured in an image. In functional magnetic resonance imaging, the image is taken during some type of activity, for example, when the patient is looking at pictures. Magnetic resonance imaging is commonly called MRI.

Happy pills

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs, are commonly called “happy pills”. SSRI drugs block the re-absorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in nerve cell synapses. The drugs were developed to alleviate depression, but have been proven to also work for e.g. social anxiety disorder.