Happiness. Love. Pleasure. Motivation.
Each of these feelings have a chemical in the brain working behind the scene to signal that it is about to be rewarded: dopamine.
Often, when someone with a substance use disorder describes why they do drugs, they express a want or need of the feeling that the drug produces. This pleasurable feeling that they seek is dopamine at work in the user’s brain.
In this blog post, we will discuss what dopamine is and how it relates to addiction.
What is dopamine and what does it do?
Dopamine is a chemical in our brain—also known as a neurotransmitter—that transmits nerve cell signals in our brain. Dopamine is derived from tyrosine, and is related to norepinephrine and epinephrine.
When something we perceive to be good is generated in our systems, that’s when dopamine neurons are activated. Different people need different pleasures and rewards to get enough dopamine neuron. A food addict’s neurons get activated with the bite of a juicy hamburger, or a sex addict’s dopamine is released when viewing adult visual images. Similarly, an alcoholic gets that same rush of dopamine when that first drink is sipped.
What kind of drug is dopamine?
When the drug user takes a drug of choice to achieve the pleasurable feeling being sought, the dopamine chemical is released. When the brain gets over-stimulated with a certain drug, it releases dopamine, which produces a euphoric effect that rewards and reinforces the drug user’s behavior.
The reward for the user is the pleasure, energy or relaxation that different drugs offer. The reinforcement comes into play because when the dopamine is released in the brain, the drug user recognizes that feeling and creates a remembered pattern of doing this behavior again and again to achieve similar feelings. Addiction occurs when the user relies all too frequently on overuse of drugs to achieve these sensations.
Is dopamine addictive?
Yes, in a word. The effects of needing more dopamine feelings causes the addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that the drug user feels immediately impacted by the use of drugs and the dopamine it produces in the brain. A puff of marijuana or a snort of cocaine has that immediate sensation. This can lead to the user relying more heavily on the drug use to produce any kind of pleasurable feelings.
In treating drug users, it’s important for family members what dopamine is, what its effects are, and what causes drug users to continually increase their intake of drugs for a higher response and reward from dopamine. The power of dopamine exists in many forms. It’s the lubricant for the receptors in our brain. But it’s a complex drug that can cause addiction in certain people.
Dopamine and motivation
Dopamine is a complex neurotransmitter, and the way it interacts with our brain receptors gives it a flexible quality. When people hear the word dopamine, they understand it as a chemical release into your brain when you’re achieving happiness on some level. But dopamine also relates to how we are motivated, and more specifically, how the drug user is motivated.
One of dopamine’s key functions in the brain neurotransmitter makeup is to provide the sensations of pleasure that our brain associates with certain behaviors. These behaviors can include eating, drinking, having sex and more. The reason we do these activities is because our brain neurotransmitters have associated these behaviors with a dopamine rush, and that makes us feel good.
But when addictive drugs are added to the brain with dopamine, an artificial setting is created instead of the dopamine just naturally flowing. Some drugs imitate the dopamine, tricking the brain into allowing the drugs to connect to the neurons. Others heighten dopamine’s effects to extreme levels. This can lead to the brain requiring more dopamine over time than normal production allows. That’s when the person becomes dependent on the drug, leading to cravings of never being satisfied with the amount.
“Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed October 25, 2016.
Hirschman, David. 2014. “Your Brain on Drugs: Dopamine and Addiction.” BigThink.com. 2015. Accessed October 26, 2016.
McIntosh, David and Webberley, Helen Dr. “Serotonin Facts: What Does Serotonin Do?” April 29, 20-16. Accessed October 26, 2016.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.