Reward Systems in Psychology
The reward system is a group of neural structures responsible for motivation, desires and cravings. This page details what the Reward System is, and its relationship with addiction behaviours and substance disorders.
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What is the Reward System?
The term reward system describes a group of structures that are activated by rewarding or reinforcing stimuli, such as addictive drugs or alcohol. When the brain is exposed to a rewarding stimulus, it reacts by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
It links the ventral tegmental area (VTA), one of the principal dopamine-producing locations in the brain, with the nucleus accumbens, a region discovered in the ventral striatum that is strongly related to motivation and reward.
The reward system is generally considered to be made up of the central dopamine pathways of the brain (especially the mesolimbic pathway) and structures like the VTA and nucleus accumbens, which are connected by these dopamine pathways.
How Addiction Affects the Reward System
The nucleus accumbens (NAC), also called the ventral striatum, is the central processing part of the reward circuit. It is associated with cognitive processing of rewards and identifying the salience (desirability) of stimuli in addition to obtaining and generating conditioned behaviours that facilitate future reward-seeking behaviour.
The PFC makes up the anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices, which are involved in the combination of information that contributes to whether a behaviour is elicited.
This area is where motivation comes from and the salience of stimuli is identified. The brain’s executive functions, including delayed gratification, are likewise discovered in this area. The hippocampus (HIP) is critically essential for learning and memory.
Substances that introduce unnatural levels of dopamine over a period of time hijack the brain’s natural reward system, affecting many functions in the brain’s reward pathways. This loss of control explains in part, why addict brains are unable to control their urges and continue to abuse substances despite negative consequences.
Appropriate actions to natural rewards were evolutionarily crucial for reproduction, fitness, and survival. In a quirk of evolutionary fate, humans found how to stimulate this system synthetically with drugs.
A better understanding of natural brain reward systems will, therefore, improve understanding of the neural causation of addiction.
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