Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that affects its pleasure centers. It’s one of a group of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. When released in large enough amounts, it creates feelings of reward. It can also make a person feel more focused and increase their memory and attention span.
The positive feelings it creates can motivate a person to seek out this feeling and to repeat the behaviors that lead to the release of dopamine into the brain. This desire to repeat behaviors that cause the release of dopamine is key to understanding the role of dopamine in addiction.
The Role of Dopamine In ADHD
People who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often prescribed medications like methylphenidate, which has the brand name Ritalin, among other names. Methylphenidate was originally found to motivate people to have better focus and concentration and to be able to perform harder tasks for longer periods of time.
Dopamine is released into the brain, and methylphenidate works by blocking its reabsorption. By keeping more dopamine actively working in the brain, these positive feelings remain for longer periods, resulting in increased focus, better mental performance, and more intense feelings of accomplishment.
Ritalin has been prescribed for decades to many people who suffer from ADHD. It’s generally considered safe and effective, and its effect on dopamine in the brain helps to ease ADHD symptoms. However, the use of recreational drugs or alcohol can increase dopamine levels in the brain, artificially creating positive feelings. Someone may then begin to seek out these positive feelings regularly. This continued release of dopamine can lead to problems.
Using Drugs to Release Dopamine Can Lead to Dependence
Any action a person takes that causes a sensation of pleasure is due to the release of dopamine to the neurotransmitters in the brain. Everything from tasting delicious food to experiencing something amusing leads to the release of dopamine or other chemical in the brain, causing feelings of pleasure.
Alcohol and certain drugs trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, which results in the feelings of contentment and even euphoria. And just like one person might seek out more delicious food for the good feeling it provides, another might begin to seek out more alcohol or a drug to regain that euphoric feeling.
Different drugs also cause the reaction of other chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins, causing a feeling of a “high.” Other drugs can also chemically mimic naturally occurring neurotransmitter chemicals, rather than stimulating the release of them by the brain itself.
If someone uses any of these types of drugs regularly, their brain chemistry can change over time, and eventually they have to take the drug for the chemical to be released. The drug becomes the necessary catalyst for the positive feeling to occur and addiction can take hold.
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