What is dopamine?

Dr. Kathleen Hall
Preventive Medicine
The brain produces a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine affects your brain processes that control movement of your body, emotional response, and your ability to experience pain and pleasure. Dopamine also plays an essential role in your mental and physical health. Dopamine works by attaching itself to specific proteins called receptors, and the binding of dopamine molecule with a receptor initiates a cascade of biochemical events inside the cell. It helps in the effective transmission of messages from one nerve cell to the next. It helps one cell talk to the next. Individuals with Parkinson's disease have decreased amounts of dopamine in two structures deep in the brain, the basal ganglia and substantia nigra. This becomes important as dopamine coordinates our movements, both balance and walking.
A Life in Balance: Nourishing the Four Roots of True Happiness

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A Life in Balance: Nourishing the Four Roots of True Happiness

Nautilus Book Awards Winners for 2007 (category: Self-Help/Psychology/ Personal Growth) "Like many people, Kathleen Hall found that despite great success and material wealth, she had yet to identify...
Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine
In the brain, pleasure has a universal signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine release in this part of the brain is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the pleasure center.

What dopamine does once it's released is not fully understood. Scientists used to believe that it alone was responsible for the joy and pleasure that comes with rewarding behaviors. That belief stemmed from studies that linked the amount of dopamine released with the degree of the high that drugs produced. It now appears, however, that dopamine has a much more sophisticated role. While dopamine in the brain might coincide with pleasure, it does not necessarily produce pleasure. Studies of the neural effects of nicotine show, for example, that nicotine causes a surge of dopamine but does not produce euphoria that smokers would consider a high. Meanwhile, events that are unpleasant and stressful also prompt the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. Consequently, dopamine cannot simply be the brain's pleasure switch, though it clearly has an important role in pleasure.

A growing body of evidence suggests that—in at least some contexts—dopamine is the switch for "wanting," rather than "liking," which would explain its ability to reinforce behaviors. Another body of evidence points to a role for dopamine in learning and memory. Those studies suggest that dopamine release allows the brain to compare expected outcomes with actual outcomes. In that scenario, dopamine surges tell the brain that an outcome is "better than expected." Conversely, the interruption of dopamine release tells the brain that an outcome is "worse than expected."
Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has many functions in the brain that asserts control over the body and how you feel. Dopamine's functions include:
  • Signals when a reward is present
  • Motivates people to seek out rewards
  • Promotes exploring and learning about rewards
  • Maintains awareness about reward-related cues

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.