Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger that is used by the central nervous system to relay messages between neurons. Dopamine is responsible for regulating functions like sleep, metabolism, and mood. This neurotransmitter, in particular, is greatly responsible for the surge of pleasure, sense of well-being, and euphoria that we feel when we do certain things, like eating our favorite food. In addition to these basic functions, dopamine and addiction are also strongly connected. Below is more on what drugs release dopamine and how this plays into the development of addiction.
What Is Dopamine and What Is It Responsible For?
As we previously mentioned, dopamine is a neurotransmitter or chemical that’s released in the brain and makes the individual feel good. Produced by nerve cells at the center of the brain, dopamine allows nerve cells to send messages to each other. Dopamine is responsible for allowing us to feel pleasure, satisfaction, reward, and motivation, as well as the regulation of functions like sleep and metabolism.
The release of dopamine in the brain is triggered by pleasurable activities, such as eating delicious food, having sex, spending time with loved ones, and certain substances. We tend to enjoy doing things that release dopamine, mainly because this chemical is what makes them pleasurable. Unfortunately, alcohol and drugs can cause a surge in dopamine, as well, which is partly why people become addicted to them.
How Do Drugs Affect Dopamine?
Drugs affect the brain by interfering with the way neurons (nerve cells) send, receive, and process signals using neurotransmitters like dopamine. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of natural neurotransmitters in the body. This allows the substance to bind to and activate the neurons.
Although these drugs mimic the brain’s chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter would, producing artificial and abnormal signaling through the brain’s network. Other drugs like amphetamine or cocaine can cause neurons to release abnormally excessive amounts of natural neurotransmitters (like dopamine) or prevent the recycling of these chemicals by blocking transporters.
Transporters are molecules that recycle neurotransmitters (bring them back into the neuron that released them), thereby limiting or shutting off the signal between neurons. When drugs block transporters from doing their job, the communication between neurons is amplified.
Furthermore, drugs can alter various parts of the brain, including the basal ganglia, extended amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Some drugs, like opioids, can disrupt other areas of the brain, such as the brain stem. This controls basic functions critical to life, including heart rate, breathing, and sleeping. For this reason, opioids come with a high risk of overdose.
Also known as dopamine agonist drugs, certain substances, illegal and legal, cause spikes in dopamine levels. Some of the most common drugs that increase dopamine levels include:
For those wondering, alcohol does release dopamine, too, although its mechanism of action differs from most other substances. High dopamine levels that are caused by drug or alcohol abuse contribute to physical and psychological dependence, which is the basis for the connection between dopamine and addiction. While the individual may not become automatically addicted to these substances within the first use, their effects on dopamine are what hook users.
Over time, the dependence on drugs and alcohol worsens, leading to both physical and psychological changes. Withdrawals are the most typical signs that someone is headed for addiction. Our Massachusetts rehab offers medically assisted detox that flushes these substances from the system, addresses withdrawals, and keeps patients safe in the early stages of recovery.
What Role Does Dopamine Play in Addiction?
Dopamine and addiction are linked because of how drugs and alcohol affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Most drugs of abuse are known to increase dopamine levels in the brain, specifically in the nucleus accumbens. As a result, the brain undergoes a series of changes that contribute to addiction.
The question of what neurotransmitter is responsible for addiction is ongoing, but it’s safe to say that dopamine’s role in addiction is significant. The early draw of drugs for most people is the euphoria they experience, an experience that’s fueled by the release of dopamine in the brain. Certain substances can artificially create this pleasurable sensation by activating dopamine, causing a high that becomes the reason for abuse for users.
However, because drugs that affect dopamine produce an artificial or forced reaction in the brain, the high users experience the first time doesn’t always happen as immediately or strongly in future uses. As a person continues to use their drug of choice, the brain and body become tolerant or less sensitive to the same amount.
This means that the individual will have to use more of that drug to experience the desired effect. As this pattern of behavior repeats, their body will eventually become dependent. Simply put, addiction is a byproduct of chasing that first high.
Drugs and alcohol can cause physical damage, relationship problems, legal issues, and financial struggles. However, there are resources available for individuals who have been impacted by substance abuse and need help regaining their sobriety.
Our Massachusetts inpatient drug rehab offers on-site, 24-hour care and support for patients with severe addictions. From medical detox programs to substance-specific care to aftercare resources, we can give you everything you need to get and stay sober.
For more information about our Massachusetts substance abuse treatment and how to get started, call Clearbrook Treatment Centers today at 570-536-9621 or send us your contact information, and we’ll reach out to you.