Dopamine Primer

The Ultimate “Wonder” Drug

The more scientists learn about dopamine the more they wonder what else there is to discover. Dopamine is a vital neurotransmitter and hormone connected to a surprisingly wide array of neurological functions: cognition, learning, attention, memory, desire, pleasure, punishment, reward, aversion, motivation, sleep, mood, motivation, behavior, and voluntary movement.

Dopamine dysfunction has been linked to several pathological disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychoses involving delusions and paranoia, and a slew of addictions.

There are so many complications some scientists argue that only highly trained professionals are capable of understanding how dopamine manipulates behavior. As you will see, that’s like insisting that driving a car requires an engineering degree.

Driving Lessons

Drivers don’t have to know about internal combustion, they just have to remember gas pedals are for going, brake pedals for stopping, steering wheels for turning, “D” stands for drive, “R” reverse, and “N” neutral.

We come equipped with stop and go dopamine receptors that keep toddlers’ mouths going for life-sustaining breast milk and stopping for foul-tasting/life-threatening toxins.

Understanding how the go receptors work starts with an instructive five minute excerpt from a brilliant presentation.

Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure

Once you grasp the relationship between dopamine and expectations of positive rewards (go pedals) you’re ready to extend your expertise to the aversive behavior (stop pedals) associated with unpleasant expectations.

Dopamine in motivational control: rewarding, aversive, and alerting


Midbrain dopamine neurons are well known for their strong responses to rewards and their critical role in positive motivation. It has become increasingly clear, however, that dopamine neurons also transmit signals related to salient but non-rewarding experiences such as aversive and alerting events.

Shifting Gears and Steering

During our formative years, positive and negative experiences determine when and why we’ll shift gears, what we’ll steer towards and what we’ll avoid — usually for the rest of our lives.

For the fortunate few, raised in loving, supportive, nurturing environments, a little dopamine goes a long way. Nurtured children, whose emotional needs are regularly met, mature into conscious adults. Conscious adults are capable of controlling their pedals, shifting into neutral, and steering lives in the direction of happiness and fulfillment.

For the unfortunate many, neglected, abandoned, abused, belittled, and/or bullied, the prospects can be dicey. Traumatized children, burdened with unmet emotional needs, too often turn into needy grownups. The more traumatic the traumas, the stronger the cravings, the greater the attraction to addictive behaviors, beliefs, and substances that trigger excessive dopamine flow, the more unconscious, self-deceptive, and driven the individual.

Combining the search terms childhood/adolescent/abuse/trauma/neglect/addictions produces scores of studies similar to the following:

Psychiatric Comorbidity in Treatment-Seeking Alcoholics: The Role of Childhood Trauma and Perceived Parental Dysfunction

Conclusion: Childhood abuse is an important factor in understanding clinical impairment in treated alcoholics, especially regarding comorbid phobic anxiety disorders, PTSD, and suicidality.

Integrated Treatment for the Survivor of Childhood Trauma Who Is Chemically Dependent

A substantial percentage of individuals who are chemically dependent also suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and other survivor syndromes related to childhood abuse.

Juvenile Violence and Addiction: Tangled Roots in Childhood Trauma

Juvenile offenders exhibit three prominent features: drug involvement, a history of family violence, and intrinsic neurological and/ or cognitive vulnerabilities.

The Plot Sickens

Drugs aren’t the only way traumatized children and grown-ups trigger excessive quantities of dopamine.

In 2010 the Scripps Research Institute issued the results of a study that found that laboratory rats given the opportunity to consume foods that are normally considered highly palatable yet extremely unhealthy (i.e., high-calorie, high-fat) will overeat. This overeating forces a neuroadaptive change in their dopamine circuits that is similar to the changes in brains of people suffering from drug addiction. As the brain’s pathways grow accustomed to being overstimulated a pathological cycle begins where addicts require a constant flow of dopamine to avoid entering a state of withdrawal.

According to Scripps Research Associate Professor Paul J. Kenny, “What happens in addiction is lethally simple. The reward pathways in the brain have been so overstimulated that the system basically turns on itself, adapting to the new reality of addiction, whether its cocaine or cupcakes.”

In other words, a neurotransmitter that evolved to foster survival undermines free will by seizing control of the equipment. Sans free will, addicts spend their lives speeding towards dopamine triggers, shifting into reverse to avoid dopamine deprivation, and steering clear of anything that threatens to get in the way of scoring their favorite neurotransmitter.

Extending What Is Known

In addition to cocaine and food addictions, researchers have used brain scanning equipment to link dopamine to sex, video games, social media, heroin, caffeine, nicotine, beer, and aversive behavior.

Despite the fact that food and sex are included in the first level of Abraham Maslow’s deficiency needs (d-needs), scientists are steering clear of research that might link dopamine to Maslow’s emotional d-needs for safety/power, acceptance/approval/attention, and esteem. Maslow’s deficiency needs correspond with the dopamine-induced survival behaviors that keep chimpanzees obsessing over safety, power, acceptance, approval, attention, and status.

This raises a few questions:

  • If dopamine is powerful enough to be involved in autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, delusions, paranoia, and a long list of acknowledged addictions, why aren’t researchers looking into the links between dopamine and emotional addictions to safety, power, acceptance, approval, attention, and esteem?
  • If cocaine and cupcakes can short circuit the brain’s reward pathways, why can’t dopamine-triggering emotions overstimulate the dopaminergic system until it basically turns on itself, adapting to the new reality of emotional addictions?
  • Is it possible the same dopamine-induced aversive behavior, that kept Galileo’s critics from looking through the astronomer’s telescope, explains today’s researchers’ lack of curiosity about the connections between dopamine and the emotional deficiency needs we share with chimpanzees?

What do you think?


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