Dopamine is one of the most interesting brain chemicals, responsible for everything from mood regulation, food preferences, addiction, motivation, and even the development of certain mental and physical health issues such as Schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. Despite its importance to our daily lives, it is one of the most misunderstood brain chemicals.
Dopamine is a chemical called a neurotransmitter that sends messages between brain cells. There are numerous types of neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, which plays a role in depression Dopamine is produced in two areas of the brain, the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area. Each area is tiny; smaller than postage stamps, but they play a huge role in your day-to-day life.
Speech and Movement
The dopamine produced by the substantia nigra plays a huge role in movements and speech. Difficulty with movement initiation or speech can be the result of the brain cells that make dopamine dying off. It is also the area of the brain that is affected in Parkinson’s patients. To help with normal movement, to control tremors, and to assist with speech, many patients are given dopamine boosters. In other cases, they may receive an implant that stimulates the substantia nigra.
Reward and Reinforcement
Dopamine produced by the ventral tegmental area doesn’t assist with movement or speech; instead, it fills the brain with dopamine when an award is anticipated. Basically, it is released to make you feel good, encouraging you to seek out more of that experience. Over time, it can even cause you to change your behavior in a way that results in more of that pleasurable experience.
The chemical also plays a huge role in reinforcement and motivation. For example, lab animals that press a lever over and over again to receive a treat do so because when they treat comes, they experience a wave of dopamine motivating them to push the lever again. Similarly, it can be used to motivate people. Students may use study breaks to play video games or enjoy a snack as a way to reward themselves for their progress.
The Dark Side of Dopamine
While dopamine can be used to encourage people to seek out rewarding and healthy behaviors, such as socializing, eating, and completing tasks, it also has a huge dark side. Most addictive substances, such as nicotine, cocaine, and heroin, boost dopamine levels in the brain. This is part of the reason for the euphoric high that many people experience when taking drugs. Stimulating the area of the brain responsible for reward and reinforcement is the reason why people keep coming back to use the same substances to the point of addiction.
Since these drugs stimulate incredibly high levels of dopamine, it is hard to just suddenly quit. Replacing drugs with other, healthier habits simply does not create the same reaction in the brain, leading to further addictive behaviors without treatment.
Dopamine Can Create an Addiction to Almost Anything
Almost anything that a person enjoys can stimulate the production of dopamine, not just drugs or other chemical substances. Everything from video games to sex to food can lead to the over-production of dopamine in the brain. If you find that you or a loved one have stopped participating in hobbies you once loved, eschewing everything in pursuit of one activity, whether it be drug use, playing video games, or shopping, it is cause for concern. It could indicate that there are high dopamine levels at play, leading to addiction.
Dopamine and Mental Health
The precise cause of schizophrenia is not known, but pharmacological evidence supports the so-called “dopamine theory of schizophrenia.” This theory states that people with schizophrenia have overactive dopamine systems, leading to an overproduction of the substance in the brain. This can create hallucinations, delusions, and an inflated sense of confidence. Drugs that block dopamine receptors reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia, which is one of the main reasons the dopamine theory has so much support.
An altered dopamine neurotransmitter is also implicated in ADD and ADHD in children and adults. Inadequate dopamine levels can lead to difficulty focusing and working memory recollection. As with schizophrenia, there is a theory that dopamine plays a role in ADD/ADHD because some of the most effective treatments are those that stimulate dopamine production.
Dopamine is one of the most complex brain chemicals, affecting almost every aspect of our live. Understanding the role it plays in physical and mental health can help you understand recommended treatment options better, leading to greater compliance with doctor-recommended care. In addition, understanding how to use dopamine, and its reward and reinforcement, to your benefit can help you become a lot more motivated and productive. For example, planning an enjoyable activity to complete after a boring one can help you get it done without procrastination or any type of delay.