Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends out signals to various parts of the brain – there are 2 principal areas of the brain that produce dopamine: the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area. Dopamine from the substantia nigra helps us with movement and speech, while dopamine from the ventral tegmental area provides us with feelings of pleasure and reward. For example, eating your favorite food or listening to a great song will release dopamine, which essentially tells your brain that whatever you’ve just consumed is very enjoyable and is worthy of having more of. Since our bodies create dopamine, the chemical itself is not addictive – but too much of anything can cause an influx of the neurotransmitter, which can become addictive.
A 2017 review titled “The Dopamine Motive System: Implications for Drug and Food Addiction” emphasizes that dopamine works to reinforce, motivate, and self-regulate – these three tasks are hefty ones in the realm of addiction because if things get out of hand and too much dopamine is released, the brain can become used to the overflow (it becomes stored in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that stores memories), making it all the more difficult to quit whatever it is that’s causing the influx. Some drugs are so strong that just one use can cause the brain to remember those pleasurable feelings and thus become hooked – others slowly reel a person in through several uses and “highs”, until that’s all a person craves.
Repeated drug use causes a person to become more reactive to drug cues, less sensitive to non-drug rewards, weakened self-regulation, and increased sensitivity to stress and dysphoria, a 2015 study titled “The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction” explains. The brain is an entire system that can become “hijacked” if substances are abused; chemicals in drugs can cause chemicals in the brain (such as dopamine) to react excessively, making recovery more challenging with each use.
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