You’ve probably heard of dopamine as a “pleasure chemical” that’s been associated with addiction.
Think of the term “dopamine rush.” People use it to describe the flood of pleasure that comes from making a new purchase or finding a $20 bill on the ground.
But some of what you’ve heard may be more myth than fact.
Experts are still studying exactly how dopamine, a neurotransmitter, works in the context of addiction. Many believe it trains your brain to avoid unpleasant experiences and seek out pleasurable ones.
It’s this role in reinforcing your brain’s quest for pleasure that’s led many to associate dopamine with addiction. But it’s not that simple. While dopamine does play a role in addiction, this role is complex and not fully understood.
Read on to learn more about the myths and facts surrounding dopamine’s role in addiction.
There’s a popular misconception that people experiencing addiction are actually addicted to dopamine, rather than drugs or certain activities.
Experiences that make you feel good, including using drugs, activate your brain’s reward center, which responds by releasing dopamine. This release causes your brain to focus more of its attention on the experience. As a result, you’re left with a strong memory of the pleasure you felt.
This strong memory can prompt you to make an effort to experience it again by using drugs or seeking out certain experiences. But the drug or activity is still the underlying source of this behavior.
While dopamine isn’t the sole cause of addiction, its motivational properties are thought to play a role in addiction.
Remember, the reward center in your brain releases dopamine in response to pleasurable experiences. This part of your brain is also closely linked to memory and motivation.
The seeds of addiction
Generally speaking, when you experience a positive sensation and dopamine is released into the pathways of the reward center, your brain takes note of:
- What triggered the sensation: Was it a substance? A behavior? A type of food?
- Any cues from your environment that can help you find it again. Did you experience it at night? What else were you doing? Were you with a certain person?
When you’re exposed to those environmental cues, you’ll begin to feel the same drive to seek out that same pleasure. This drive can be incredibly powerful, creating an urge that’s hard to control.
Keep in mind that this process doesn’t always involve harmful substances or activities.
Eating good food, having sex, creating art, and a range of other things can trigger similar responses from your brain’s reward center.
People sometimes refer to dopamine as the “pleasure chemical.” This term stems from the misconception that dopamine is directly responsible for feelings of euphoria or pleasure.
Dopamine does contribute to your experience of pleasure. But it doesn’t have much to do with creating pleasurable feelings, experts believe.
Instead, it helps reinforce enjoyable sensations and behaviors by linking things that make you feel good with a desire to do them again. This link is an important factor in the development of addiction.
Neurotransmitters that do cause feelings of pleasure or euphoria include:
In the context of drugs, tolerance refers to the point at which you stop feeling the effects of a drug to the same degree that you used to, even though you’re consuming the same amount of the drug.
If you develop a tolerance to a substance, you’ll need to use more of it to feel the effects you’re used to. Dopamine plays a role in this process.
Consistent drug misuse eventually leads to overstimulation in the reward center. Its pathways become overwhelmed, making it harder for it to handle the high levels of dopamine being released.
The brain tries to solve this problem in two ways:
- decreasing dopamine production
- reducing dopamine receptors
Either change generally results in the substance having less of an effect due to a weaker response by the brain’s reward center.
Still, the craving to use remains. It just takes more of the drug to satisfy it.
Addiction is a complex brain disorder that doesn’t have a single, obvious cause. Dopamine plays a role, but it’s one small piece of a larger puzzle.
Experts believe a range of biological and environmental factors can significantly increase someone’s risk for addiction.
Some of these biological factors include:
- Genes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 40 to 60 percent of addiction risk stems from genetic factors.
- Health history. Having a history of certain medical conditions, particularly mental health conditions, can increase your risk.
- Developmental stage. According to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using drugs as a teenager increases your risk for addiction down the road.
Environmental factors, particularly for children and teenagers, include:
- Home life. Living with or near people who misuse drugs can increase risk.
- Social influences. Having friends who take drugs can make it more likely you’ll try them and potentially develop an addiction.
- Challenges at school. Having troubles socially or academically can increase your risk for trying drugs and eventually developing an addiction.
These are just some of the many factors that can contribute to addiction. Keep in mind they don’t mean an addiction will definitely develop.
If you or someone close to you is experiencing addiction, help is available.
The first step in getting help is reaching out. You can talk to your healthcare provider about addiction treatment or ask for a referral to another doctor.
If you’re not comfortable bringing it up, there are many organizations that can help without requiring you to see your primary healthcare provider. Consider the following:
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers resources that can help you decide if you’re ready to seek help.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a treatment services locator and phone numbers for national helplines.
Addiction treatment often involves medical care, especially if drug misuse is affecting your health or your need to safely detox.
But talk therapy is also an important part of addiction treatment, whether the addiction involves drugs, alcohol, or a certain behavior.
Dopamine is one of the many factors that can contribute to addiction. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t be addicted dopamine. But it does play an important role in motivating you to seek out pleasurable experiences.
Dopamine also contributes to tolerance, which requires you to need more of a substance or activity to feel the same effects you initially did.