What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is one of the more well known neurotransmitters, which work in our brain. Whenever there is a discussion of neuroscience or “brain chemicals,” Dopamine is sure to feature in that discussion.

Dopamine is a very important neurotransmitter that our body produces and which acts on the brain. The function of Dopamine is transmitting signals from the central nervous system and allowing information to be passed from one neuron to another. Dopamine is the primary force behind majority of our actions, relationships and feelings, such as love, lust, infidelity, attention, motivation, addiction, and learning etc. Without Dopamine we would be just like robots. Dopamine plays an important role and effects different functions in our body. The effect of Dopamine on the brain depends on various factors and gets affected by other types of neurons, which it gets combined with.

What is Dopamine?

Read on more to find out about dopamine, its function and role in our lives.

The Action of Dopamine on our Movements

Basal ganglia are the primary structure in the brain, which is responsible for controlling different movements of our body. If the basal ganglia have to work effectively, then it needs secretion of a certain amount of dopamine from the adjacent neurons. Insufficient dopamine leads to uncoordinated or delayed voluntary movement, such as seen in Parkinson’s disease. If there is excess of dopamine reaching the basal ganglia, the body makes unnecessary movements like repetitive tics, which can be seen in Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome.

Role of Dopamine in Attention Span

Dopamine helps in maintaining attention and concentration. Dopamine responds to optic nerves/vision, which helps a person to focus attention to a specific activity/task. Dopamine can also be responsible for retaining information in a person’s short-term memory. A part of prefrontal cortex is related with the immediate attention of a person. Low levels of dopamine can lead to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

The Role of Dopamine in Memory, Learning & Retention of Information

Teachers and parents who have been wondering why their kids are not able to retain the information, which they have been taught can now better able to understand the reason behind it.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is linked with higher-ordered thinking and secretion of dopamine helps in improving the working memory of person. Even if there is any slight increase or decrease in the normal level of the dopamine, then it affects the memory. Along with memory, dopamine also affects the learning process and the manner in which the information is retained. Presence of dopamine during any experience or event makes us remember that event; and absence of dopamine will lead to problems in remembering it.

The Action of Dopamine in Pleasure

Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter, which manages how a person experiences and perceives pleasure. During a pleasurable or happy situation or a moment, the dopamine causes the individual to seek the desirable activity again and again. Some of the examples include eating food, particularly which has increased concentration of sugar; or having sexual intercourse, which act as stimulants or trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, thus making these activities enjoyable.

The Affect of Dopamine on the Mood

As mentioned previously, the dopamine is the chemical which promotes feelings of pleasure, and thus dopamine is responsible for seeking and looking forward to pleasurable activities and enjoying life. According to recent studies, dopamine is thought to play a role in depression, along with serotonin and norepinephrine, which are also neurotransmitters.

Role of Dopamine in Processing Pain

Along with good or pleasurable experiences, the dopamine also gets released when a person goes through bad or unwanted stimuli/situation, such as arguing with someone or when getting injured.

Role of Dopamine in Addictions

Majority of the drugs, which cause addiction, act by targeting the dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain. Some drugs, like amphetamines and cocaine, inhibit the dopamine re-uptake in each synapse present. A synapse consists of a neuron, which releases specific neurotransmitter and one more neuron which receives the specific neurotransmitter and has a gap between the two, which is termed as a synaptic cleft. Communication of neurons takes place via different means; one of which consist the process of reuptake. Reuptake is the process, which occurs after the dopamine is released from the first neuron. For recycling of the dopamine/neurotransmitter, the first neuron absorbs the remaining dopamine after it has done its job, then re-uses it again when needed. This re-uptake process is also responsible for controlling the quantity of the neurotransmitter, which is present for the brain to use and to avoid its excessive amount.

Drugs like amphetamines and cocaine inhibit this reuptake process of dopamine, which means that the dopamine does not get re-absorbed by the neurons leading to its presence in the brain for extended time. This excess dopamine results in increased feelings of pleasure, which leads to craving of the drugs resulting in addiction.

Role of Dopamine in Sleep

Elevated levels of dopamine in the brain are related with increased feelings of wakefulness. Commonly, our brain secretes more dopamine during the day so that a person can stay awake and refreshed. As the night comes, the levels of dopamine fall and melatonin gets secreted, so a person feels sleepy during the night when it is dark. This is the reason why people suffering from Parkinson’s disease are prone to feelings of chronic sleepiness, as they lack the release of dopamine in their brains.

People suffering from illnesses, such as schizophrenia or psychosis, have extremely high amount of dopamine in their brains, which leads to them being so hyper and maniac. Such patients need to take antipsychotic medications as these help in decreasing the level of dopamine and make them tranquil, calm and sleepy.

Affect of Dopamine on Cognition & Behavior

Dopamine which gets released in the brain’s frontal lobe is responsible for regulating the flow of information, which it gets from other parts of the brain. Any disorder in this region results in decrease of neurocognitive functions, such as the ability to solve any problem.

Action of Dopamine on a Person’s Creativity

According to studies, there is a link between creativity and the dopaminergic center. There is association of dopamine receptors with the thought process. People who are creative and people who suffer from schizophrenia have increased number of dopamine receptors in the thalamus leading to hindrance in cognition and reasoning, which results in increased flow of information through the brain. This is the reason why creative people can easily solve any problem through making strange associations, as they have unusual connections in the brain.

Role of Dopamine in Motivation

According to research, dopamine is also responsible for motivating us, the driving force which leads us towards our goals. Dopamine is released so that a person can avoid bad things and achieve something good. Absence of dopamine is a feature seen in conditions where there is little to no motivation, such as anhedonia where the person lacks the ability to feel any pleasure.

Role of Dopamine in a Person’s Personality

Our level of extraversion is one of the personality traits which define us the most. There are two main components of extraversion: impulsivity and social interaction. Extraversion is highly dependent on dopamine. There are many studies, which reveal people who are impulsive trigger the dopamine circuits faster than others. However, such types of people also are at increased risk for developing dangerous impulsive behaviors.

Dopamine Fluctuations: What Happens If The Levels of Dopamine Increase or Decrease?

There are some medical conditions, which are caused by excess or lack of dopamine.

When there is very little dopamine present, then a person tends to feel unmotivated, bored or depressed. Very little dopamine can also cause anhedonia where a person has difficulty in enjoying and feeling any pleasure. Common medical problems, which are characterized by decreased levels of dopamine include social phobia, depression, Parkinson’s disease and ADHD. The medication which is prescribed for such problems generally increases the amount of dopamine in the brain in small doses, so that there is no risk of it becoming addictive. These conditions are actually caused by poor motivation and reduction in the person actively looking for good stimuli; and all this is related to reduction in the dopamine production.

Increased levels of dopamine are associated with mental conditions, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The medications which are prescribed for these conditions are often dopamine inhibitors, which delay the transmission of dopamine from one neuron to another.

The Role of Dopamine in Addiction

Addiction means the intense desire or craving for something, having no control over its use, and continuing to use that particular thing even after knowing of its negative consequences. Addiction causes changes in the structure of the brain and also enhances the way our brain registers pleasure.

When a person gets exposed repeatedly to addictive substances or behavior, then it leads to communication between the nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. This results in the person liking and wanting something and craving after it. This process motivates the person to search for the source of pleasure.

When the dopamine accumulates in the brain, then it causes persistent creation of new dopamine receptors. Gradually, our brain adapts and the dopamine does not have the same effect as it was having originally, which results in a person looking more acutely for things which he/she craves. This development is known as tolerance.

Addiction Without Any Substance: Behavioral Addiction & Dopamine

Any type of addiction where there is no involvement of substance is known as impulse control disorders and these are behavioral addictions. Such type of addictions includes compulsive shopping, addiction to work, technology, gambling and sex. Behavioral addiction shares many similarities with addiction to any substance.

Just like in substance addictions, in behavioral addiction, when a person feels stressed, bad, or anxious, then he/she indulges in behaviors, which will bring happiness and removes such negative feelings. This results in repetition of the behavior, which gives pleasure. The levels of dopamine in behavioral addiction are high, but considered normal, as they have not been artificially increased with the use of drugs. Behavioral addiction does not create a physical dependence and is also not as harmful to the brain as substance abuse.

Is Dopamine Responsible for Causing Addiction?

Even though dopamine does have a role to play in addictions, it is important to understand that it does not cause addiction on its own. One example is when a person is curious about something, then there is release of dopamine in the brain; however, one does not become addicted to curiosity, as the body eliminates dopamine at a constant rate, thus keeping a balance. Dopamine alone is not responsible for causing addiction. Addiction is caused by compulsive behaviors which seek the peak of dopamine that results in an addiction. Addiction also depends a lot on a person’s characteristics and the manner in which they control their impulses.

CONCLUSION: The Happiness From Dopamine: Reality or Delusion?

Dopamine helps in generating motivation and promoting learning. Dopamine also helps in generation of other positive feelings, such as feeling excited, falling in love and enjoying the moon, stars, a beautiful sunset etc. Such types of day to day pleasures are controlled by dopamine; however, a balance needs to be maintained with it. There should not be excess of dopamine or very less dopamine.

If the dopamine is released by the brain in response to natural stimuli, then the happiness experienced by the person is real. The dopamine produced as a result of an activation of a drug or other substance is artificial “happiness.”

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD, FFARCSI

Last Modified On: January 10, 2018

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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