What Is Dopamine?

What Is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter. Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. That's why it's sometimes called a chemical messenger.

Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It's a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting.

Your body spreads it along four major pathways in the brain. Like most other systems in the body, you don’t notice it (or maybe even know about it) until there’s a problem.

Too much or too little of it can lead to a vast range of health issues. Some are serious, like Parkinson’s disease. Others are much less dire.

Dopamine Basics

It’s made in the brain through a two-step process. First, it changes the amino acid tyrosine to a substance called dopa, and then into dopamine.

It affects many parts of your behavior and physical functions, such as:

Role in Mental Health

It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause of most mental health disorders and challenges. But they're often linked to too much or too little dopamine in different parts of the brain. Examples include:

Schizophrenia. Decades ago, researchers believed that symptoms stemmed from a hyperactive dopamine system. Now we know that some are due to too much of this chemical in certain parts of the brain. This includes hallucinations and delusions. A lack of it in other parts can cause different signs, such as lack of motivation and desire.

ADHD. No one knows for sure what causes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some research shows it may be due to a shortage of dopamine. This problem may be due to your genes. The ADHD drug methylphenidate (Ritalin) works by boosting dopamine.

Drug misuse and addiction. Drugs such as cocaine can cause a big, fast increase of dopamine in your brain. That satisfies your natural reward system in a big way. But repeated drug use also raises the threshold for this kind of pleasure. This means you need to take more to get the same high. Meanwhile, drugs make your body less able to produce dopamine naturally. This leads to emotional lows when you’re sober.

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Dopamine in Other Diseases

It also plays a role in diseases that aren’t related to mental health. One of these is Parkinson’s disease. Another is obesity, which the American Medical Association classified as a disease in 2013.

Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine enables neurons in your brain to communicate and control movement. In Parkinson’s, one type of neuron steadily degenerates. It doesn’t have a signal to send anymore, so your body makes less dopamine. The chemical imbalance causes physical symptoms. These include tremor, stiffness, slowness of spontaneous movement, poor balance, and poor coordination. Doctors treat these symptoms with medications that raise levels of this chemical.

Obesity. Most of the time, if you take in more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. So why can’t obese people simply eat less and slim down? The answer isn’t that simple. They may face obstacles that others don't. They could have problems with their natural reward systems. This can affect the amount of food they eat before they feel satisfied. Imaging studies suggest that in people with this condition, the body may not release enough dopamine and another feel-good hormone, serotonin.

Dopamine Can Save Lives

This chemical usually plays a secondary role in the body, but in certain medical situations, it’s literally a lifesaver. Doctors use prescription dopamine (Inotropin) to treat:

There are possible complications with any drug, even if taken under close supervision. The main ones associated with dopamine include:

Because many drugs interact with it, it’s important that your doctor knows all the medications you take.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on June 19, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Translational Psychiatry: "Effects of dopamine D2/D3 receptor antagonism on human planning and spatial working memory."

Journal of Mental Disorders and Treatment: "Dopamine: Receptors, Functions, Synthesis, Pathways, Locations and Mental Disorders: Review of Literatures.”

Merck Manual: “Neurotransmission.”

Nature Neuroscience: "What does dopamine mean?”

U.S. National Library of Medicine (PubChem): “Dopamine.”

Frontiers in Psychiatry: "The Role of Dopamine in Schizophrenia from a Neurobiological and Evolutionary Perspective: Old Fashioned, But Still in Vogue."

Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment: "Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome.”

BMJ: "Methylphenidate works by increasing dopamine levels.”

Neuropharmacology: "Imaging dopamine's role in drug abuse and addiction."

Medscape: “AMA Declares Obesity a Disease,” “Dopamine (Rx).”

Madame Curie Bioscience Database: "Dopamine and Parkinson's Disease.”

Metabolism: "The role of central dopamine and serotonin in human obesity."

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