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The Nucleus Accumbens

The nucleus accumbens is located in the part of the brain called the basal forebrain. It is also present in all locations between the caudate and putamen. The nucleus accumbens is considered part of the basal ganglia and is divided into two anatomical components, the shell and the core, with overlapping connections. Each component has its own functions.

The nucleus accumbens (NAc) is a vital part of the ventral startium and, for many decades, has been thought to be essential in moderating the emotional and motivational processes. It also regulates the effects of certain psychoactive drugs and limbic motor interface.

The NAc has been associated with several neurological and psychiatric disorders such as depression, Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder. It’s also been linked with Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, drug abuse and addiction.

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What Is the Nucleus Accumbens?

Nucleus accumbens is widely recognized for its role in the ‘reward circuit’ of the brain. When a person engages in any activity like eating, drugs or sex, the dopamine neurons situated in the ventral tegmental area are activated. These neurons extend to the nucleus accumbens and cause an increase of dopamine levels when triggered.

The nucleus accumbens is a vital component of the mesolimbic pathway, which is a major dopaminergic pathway that’s stimulated during rewarding experiences.

Initially, it was believed that the major role of the nucleus accumbens was in mediating rewards because of its close relationship between dopamine levels and rewarding experiences. This is the main reason why the nucleus accumbens is often connected to addiction.

Initially, it was believed that dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens increase only in response to rewarding behaviour. However, modern science has indicated that dopamine levels rise anytime an individual experiences something, whether positive or negative.

The exact role of the nucleus accumbens is not clear, and neuroscientists are still trying to understand its function in the associative learning processes. However, all research agrees that the nucleus accumbens is a critical brain area that creates memories that involve important environmental stimuli.

The Role of the Nucleus Accumbens in Addiction

The function of the nucleus accumbens is to combine motivation along with motor action and convey pertinent motivational information to the motor cells to get a certain reward or feeling of satisfaction.

The nucleus accumbens plays a major role in addiction behaviour. Substance abuse results in the release of excessive amounts of dopamine, enabling the user to make a connection between the substance and the pleasurable feeling. This, in turn, creates a craving for more of the substance.

Planning and inhibition of behaviours are among the functions of the accumbens, especially due to its connections with the prefrontal cortex. This makes it quite significant during the development of an addiction.

Scientific evidence supports the above claim of the NAc’s influence on the brain’s natural reward system and has further revealed that several substances, such as cocaine, opiates, ethanol, nicotine and heroin, affect the nucleus accumbens region.

Abused drugs increase the flow of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, disrupting plasticity in this region. However, non-abused drugs do not affect dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.

Functions of the nucleus accumbens

The nucleus accumbens’ major function is limbic-motor integration, which involves:

  • Emotions: The nucleus accumbens obtains connections from parts of the brain related to emotions like the amygdala and hypothalamus.
  • Memory and Motor Areas: The NAc connects to the memory and motor area and is important in learning of behaviours that cause a pleasurable sensation.
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