What factors affect the brain's response to dopamine?

Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine
In the brain, pleasure has a universal signature: release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that seems to be especially important during the development and maintenance of addiction. A form of the dopamine D2 receptor gene called TaqI A1, which impairs the function of the receptor, has been linked with alcoholism. That same gene also appears to be more common among pathological gamblers and might be relevant to smoking and obesity.

Genes, of course, are not the only factors that influence how the brain responds to dopamine. An animal's social environment and stress level actually can change the number of D2 receptors in the brain and change the proportion of the nucleus accumbens that is dedicated to pleasure. Thus, the environment can alter how pleasurable a given reward can be. For example, foods considered delicacies in a certain culture are sometimes repugnant to those raised in a different culture. That might explain why some social and environmental conditions are more likely to be associated with addiction than others.
The brain's response to dopamine can be affected by diseases of the nervous system which are associated with the dopamine system, e.g., Parkinson's disease, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and other modalities not limited to those mentioned above. It plays a role in motor control, motivation, arousal, cognition and reward.

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