Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain known as a neurotransmitter. It has been referred to as the “pleasure chemical” in the brain because when we do things that create a feeling of reward, dopamine levels are increased. Usually, dopamine increases occur from naturally pleasurable activities, like sex or eating food, but drugs create huge surges in dopamine that can strongly affect the brain. When dopamine levels are increased in the brain, we have a feeling of pleasure and reward. Our brains tell us to continue doing the activity and increases our feelings of motivation to procure the reward again. Normally, these dopamine surges will tell us to eat a second doughnut or another slice of pizza, but if we are doing something that creates significant surges in dopamine, like drugs, our brains will tell us to keep using no matter what. According to Bethany Brookshire, in a 2017 Science News for Student article, Explainer: What is Dopamine?, “Drugs such as cocaine, nicotine and heroin cause huge boosts in dopamine. The ‘high’ people feel when they use drugs comes partly from that dopamine spike. And that prompts people to seek out those drugs again and again — even though they are harmful.” Eventually, our brains reinforce the connection between a drug and a feeling of pleasure, and the brain is taught to seek the drug over all other natural and healthy activities. Recent research suggests that the euphoria from drug use may not be caused entirely by dopamine surges, but dopamine is responsible with causing an individual to repeat pleasurable activities. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that drug “produce much larger surges of dopamine, powerfully reinforcing the connection between consumption of the drug, the resulting pleasure, and all the external cues linked to the experience.” Eventually, reinforcement leads to habit, chronic use, and ultimately, to addiction. Dopamine can also affect our ability to recover. We become so accustomed to using using drugs that any reminder, or “trigger”, can affect the levels of dopamine in our brain. Bethany Brookshire, in a 2013 Slate article entitled What is Dopamine? Love, Lust, Sex Addiction, Gambling, Motivation, explains, “If you, say, have learned to associate a cue (like a crack pipe) with a hit of crack, you will start getting increases in dopamine in the nucleus accumbens in response to the sight of the pipe, as your brain predicts the reward.” Our expectations of a reward can affect our dopamine levels, and it may take time in recovery to overcome the cues and associations.
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