Dopamine may be best described as the brain’s way of rewarding itself and the individual for specific behaviors. Various forms of stimulation cause a release of dopamine. The pleasurable sensation that results from this dopamine release reinforces the behavior and makes the individual want to repeat it. Sex, for example, would not be nearly as popular without the added benefit of dopamine.
Although dopamine is a naturally occurring substance, the release of dopamine may be triggered by artificial chemical stimulation, including those created by illicit drugs (Robinson ; Berridge, 2003). Consequently, it should come as no surprise that drug addiction has been linked to the stimulation of dopamine receptors in the brain (Keltner, Hogan, ; Guy, 2001). Nicotine, for example, has been shown to increase dopamine activity in the reward centers of the brain (Garwood ; Potts, 2007).
Spanagel and Heilig (2005) contend that the use of certain chemicals that are found in drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and other drugs with a high potential for abuse leads to irreversible changes in molecular and structural changes in the mesolimbic dopamine system. These changes may be what causes the difference between controlled drug use, i. e. , recreational users who do not have an addiction, and the uncontrolled behavior that characterizes an addiction. These changes may explain why relapse into addictive behavior, even after years of sobriety, is such a common problem.
Addiction is a complex problem with many potential causes. Ironically, dopamine may contribute to both the development and the treatment of addictions. Understanding the interaction of dopamine and addiction may help clinicians develop better models of treatment. References Garwood, C. , and Potts. , L. (2007). Emerging pharmacotherapies for smoking cessation.
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