For decades, scientists have been trying to unravel the mystery of addiction, how it gets started, and why it often persists so stubbornly.
And for years, there’s been a theory that a chemical in the human nervous system called dopamine lies at the core of that mystery.
Dopamine is what’s called a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow nerve cells to communicate. When dopamine is released – it produces a “feel good” or pleasure sensation in the body.
It also signals the brain that whatever it just experienced is worth experiencing again.
Could it be that dopamine release is the primary trigger for addiction?
While it does seem logical – arguments have been made for years that something else is likely the primary trigger.
Those arguments may be changing as researchers in the fields of alcohol and heroin addiction close in on an answer.
In one set of experiments, researchers found a way to silence dopamine neurons in heroin-addicted mice. When those neurons were turned off, the addictive behaviors of the mice dropped sharply.
In the case of alcohol addiction – scientists have discovered that when alcohol enters the brain, it causes neurons in a specialized region called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, to release dopamine immediately.
They’ve also learned that when alcohol enters the brain, it blocks a potassium channel (think of that channel as a pipe in a plumbing system) that sits within the membrane of dopamine-releasing neurons in the VTA. When that potassium channel gets blocked, the neurons increase their activity and release more dopamine – reinforcing the urge to drink.
In both cases – dopamine’s role in triggering and ultimately sustaining addiction appears clear.
Specialists in the field are hoping to use these findings to develop therapies that take advantage of these findings – so stay tuned.
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