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What does dopamine do?

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Life is a culmination of different experiences. They could involve working on an important project, trying a new hobby, meeting friends, or even skydiving. Every action is influenced by a motive and done to seek a reward. An important brain chemical that heavily influences all the above mentioned scenarios is dopamine. You must have come across terms like dopamine diet, dopamine detox and dopamine dressing scattered all over the media. So, when is dopamine released? When the brain is expecting a reward, which could be either apparent or anticipated. The role of dopamine as a part of the ‘pleasure-reward’ system of the brain is well known. It also performs many other fascinating functions. 

Dopamine increases motivation to achieve goals

Your brain is smart enough to predict future rewards and actions needed to attain them. Dopamine is your motivation brain chemical. It is released to motivate you to work towards achieving goals [1]. This means dopamine helps you put in extra hours at work to score that promotion because your brain knows how important it is for you. A study found that in the brains of highly motivated individuals, there was an increased release of dopamine in the brain areas that involve reward and motivation [2]. Animal studies found that decreasing dopamine in rats made them choose a low effort food option, even when a better food option was available upon putting in effort [3].

Dopamine encourages you to take risks 

In addition to motivating you to achieve your goals, dopamine pushes you to try new things. Your brain can gauge that overcoming a risk can possibly lead to a reward/good experience. A study found that when dopamine production was increased, participants chose riskier options that might lead to a bigger reward, compared to choosing a small safer reward [5]. Everyday risk taking could include trying a new recipe where dopamine pushes you to overcome the risks by anticipating the delicious meal at the end. Your brain loves new things and experiences. In human studies, brain imaging found activation of dopamine producing areas when exposed to novelty [4].

Interestingly, when thrill seekers’ brains were scanned, it was found that their brains had provisions to allow constant high levels of dopamine [6]. It is harmless when these thrills are directed towards mountain climbing, roller coasters or bungee jumping. But can lead to a dopamine addiction if unchecked and directed towards drug abuse and other harmful behaviours. Luckily, our brains are agile and can be trained to recover from addictions. 

Dopamine promotes social interaction

Feeling a community spirit, forming interpersonal relationships, and positive social feedback drive the need to communicate with others. Our brains view social interactions the same way it views money and food- deeply rewarding [11]. Animal studies found that activating dopamine brain cells prompted rats to increase interaction with each other [7]. In humans, dopamine producing areas were activated when participants were shown pictures of their favourite social activity, after being kept in isolation [8].

Dopamine removes fear

Michel Phelps, world renowned swimmer who has won 23 Olympic gold medals was afraid of water as a child. He obviously outgrew this fear and dopamine in his brain played a role in the process. Dopamine reinforces that overcoming previously feared events may lead to a reward [9]. Dopamine is released when a fear-inducing event leads to a positive outcome. Especially when the anticipated fear did not materialise as expected. Animal studies found that switching off dopamine brain cells continued to induce fear even when the negative event was stopped [10]. Dopamine uses the relief felt at being safe after overcoming the fear to solidify this memory [12] that there was nothing to be afraid of. 

References

  1. Berke, J.D. (2018). What does dopamine mean? Nature Neuroscience, [online] 21(6), pp.787–793. 
  2. Treadway, M.T. et al. (2012). Dopaminergic Mechanisms of Individual Differences in Human Effort-Based Decision-Making. The Journal of Neuroscience, [online] 32(18), pp.6170–6176.
  3. Salamone, J.D. et al. (2007). Effort-related functions of nucleus accumbens dopamine and associated forebrain circuits. Psychopharmacology, 191(3), pp.461–482.
  4. Bunzeck, N. et al. (2006). Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA. Neuron, 51(3), pp.369–379.
  5. Chew, B. et al. (2019). Endogenous fluctuations in the dopaminergic midbrain drive behavioral choice variability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(37), pp.18732–18737.
  6. Zald, D.H. et al. (2008). Midbrain Dopamine Receptor Availability Is Inversely Associated with Novelty-Seeking Traits in Humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 28(53), pp.14372–14378. 
  7. Matthews, G. et al. (2016). Dorsal Raphe Dopamine Neurons Represent the Experience of Social Isolation. Cell, 164(4), pp.617–631.
  8. Tomova, L. et al. (2020). Acute social isolation evokes midbrain craving responses similar to hunger. Nature Neuroscience, 23(12), pp.1597–1605.
  9. Salinas-Hernández, X.I. et al. (2018). Dopamine neurons drive fear extinction learning by signaling the omission of expected aversive outcomes. eLife, 7.
  10. Luo, R. et al. (2018). A dopaminergic switch for fear to safety transitions. Nature Communications, 9 (1) 
  11. Krach, S. (2010). The rewarding nature of social interactions. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 4(22).




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