Some scientists believe the effects of dopamine transmitters play a major role in addiction and other mental health disorders. This idea is known as the dopamine theory.

How Does the Dopamine Theory Explain Addiction?

When an activity causes the release of dopamine in the brain, the body experiences a pleasurable feeling and incentivizes us to engage in that activity again. The dopamine theory proposes that it is the release of dopamine from substance use that causes addiction. It also says dopamine levels explain how addictions worsen with further substance use.

Over time, scientists have learned more about how dopamine works in the brain. Originally, dopamine was thought to be related to addiction through its mechanism of causing a sensation of pleasure. As more studies have been conducted, dopamine has been shown to be the reinforcing system of addiction that leads to a behavior reoccurring. The pleasurable sensation we experience is partially influenced by dopamine receptors; however, it also arises from an increased level of endorphins and other hormones when a substance is used.

The dopamine theory focuses on the idea that dopamine causes addiction to become a cycle through the reinforcement of behaviors that cause its levels to spike.

Effects of Dopamine

Dopamine is considered the “feel good” chemical in our bodies. The release of dopamine causes a variety of positive sensations, both physical and mental.

While the presence of dopamine is important for our body’s functioning, having too high dopamine levels can have consequences. The following symptoms can occur if the levels of dopamine within the body are too high or too low:

  • Decreased kidney function
  • Increased urinary flow
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Schizophrenia
  • Psychological disorders
  • Decreased impulse control
  • Addiction

Function of Dopamine

As previously stated, dopamine works to help us feel pleasurable sensations. This chemical is also strongly involved in our memory capacity and ability to concentrate.

These aspects are highly concerning with addiction. Having an excess amount of dopamine may cause individuals to struggle with their ability to concentrate. Excessive levels of this chemical can also lead to aggressive or impulsive behaviors from its effects on the frontal lobe.

Having less dopamine in our brains than we are used to, which happens when someone who is addicted to a substance resists using it, can also cause unpleasant symptoms. Low levels of dopamine can lead to the onset of depression and other mental health disorders.

Regulating our dopamine levels can help keep our mental state grounded and our brains functioning properly. Just as with any other chemical in our body, regulation is extremely important to help our body function to its desired level and enable us to live a healthy and positive lifestyle.

Drugs Affecting Dopamine Levels

Understanding which substances can impact our levels of dopamine can help us understand the potential risk factors of addiction coming into play. While a majority of substances affect our levels of dopamine, some do more than others. The dopamine theory is concerned with the hypothesis that the levels of dopamine released in the body when taking a substance cannot be replicated by other means. Therefore, our body will not be able to create the same sensation without the presence of the drug, which encourages further use.

Substances that highly affect levels of dopamine include cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, alcohol, and tobacco. These are not the only substances that affect our level of dopamine, but these have some of the largest impacts. Being careful with the use of these substances or avoiding them altogether is highly recommended to avoid potential addiction. Through awareness of how these substances impact dopamine and can lead to addiction, you can understand the long-term effects of using these substances. 

Using Dopamine as a Tool

In a study done on rats with a variety of substances and observing their levels of dopamine, the dopamine transmitters were lowered when the rats were denied substances. This indicates the substance use caused the body to restrict the transmission of dopamine when the substance was not present, which made the rats more dependent on the substance. Substance use has been observed to have the same altering effects on dopamine transmission in humans.

While the levels of dopamine within our system can increase our likelihood of addiction, they can also be used to help us overcome addiction. For individuals with alcohol abuse disorder, a dopamine agonist can be used to counteract the euphoric effects of the substance. This can help them disassociate the pleasurable feeling from the substance and allow them to begin to break the cycle of addiction. 

Many different dopamine agonists have been experimented with to observe their effects on addiction. Many of these agonists do not show any effects, but aripiprazole did have positive effects on those with alcohol abuse disorder. Continuing to experiment with these dopamine agonists may provide us with more strategies to help people overcome addiction in the future.

Using dopamine agonists as your only recovery strategy is not recommended, but if used in tandem with other treatment methods, dopamine agonists may provide you with some assistance in your current recovery program. Reach out to your treatment team to discuss potential options.

The dopamine theory refers to the concept that dopamine is the primary chemical that reinforces addiction. When a substance is used, endorphins, dopamine, and a variety of other “feel good” chemicals are released into the body. The dopamine receptors remember this pleasurable sensation and relate it directly to the use of the substance. This will reinforce the cycle of addiction and cause the body to feel a need for this substance. Understanding the dopamine theory and the severity of its effects can help you refrain from using substances and be able to look past the reward circuit that greatly influences addiction. Overcoming the natural response of these receptors can be difficult, but there are ways to use dopamine to your benefit you and your recovery success. To learn more about the dopamine theory, reach out to Dream Recovery today at (949) 732-1960.

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