What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine plays a vital role in mental health, addiction and movement. It has been hailed as the cause of compulsive behaviour. However, this is a reductive viewpoint that ignores the complexity of the human brain. There is a whole network of neurotransmitters that must be carefully balanced for a person to be healthy. Dopamine plays a vital role in maintaining a person’s cognitive and emotional functioning, and serious problems can occur when it is disrupted.
The two areas that produce most of the dopamine in the brain are known as the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area. Dopamine from the substantia nigra helps us to initiate speech and movement. The dopamine produced by the ventral tegmental area is released into the brains of people and animals when they expect to receive a reward and as motivation to avoid unpleasant experiences.
Dopamine and Addiction
A link between the release of dopamine and the use of stimulant drugs is undeniable. Chronic users of cocaine, alcohol and methamphetamine have demonstrated reduced dopamine availability in the brain. While dopamine clearly plays an important role in addiction, it only makes up one part of a highly complex set of factors that cause an individual to develop addictive behaviour patterns.
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Drugs That Affect Dopamine Levels
The role of dopamine in addiction has been extensively studied for the last few decades. It is generally accepted that the neurotransmitter plays a crucial role in the development of certain addictions. Some studies claim that all drugs cause dopamine release, and some studies show that it is most relevant to stimulant drugs such as cocaine that act directly on dopamine receptors. The way dopamine is theorised to interact with certain drugs is as follows:
- Cocaine: Cocaine directly induces the release of dopamine by binding to the dopamine receptor and blocking the reuptake of the chemical. This influx of dopamine creates a feeling of intense euphoria, pleasure and loss of inhibition, as well as the desire to take the drug again. Overproduction of a neurotransmitter at one stage means there will be a deficit as the body works to create more. Using cocaine can damage the way the dopamine system works and cause the compulsion to keep taking it.
- Heroin: Some studies into heroin state that dopamine doesn’t play a role in the development of addiction. It has been found that blocking dopamine receptors doesn’t dampen the rewarding actions of opioids. Studies have shown that a significant high is achieved after heroin use, in spite of the fact that no increase of dopamine is observed. On the other hand, some scientists argue that the release of dopamine precedes the use of all addictive drugs and that this surge in dopamine is what causes the user to continue using.
- Amphetamines: These types of drugs limit the reuptake of dopamine and have an effect similar to that of cocaine.
- Cannabis: As with heroin, it is hotly debated as to whether the drug causes the release of dopamine at all. Various studies have shown that prolonged use of cannabis has no impact on the availability of dopamine receptors. That said, some studies show that dopamine plays a key role in cannabis dependence.
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