What is Dopamine? Know Everything About this Pleasure Hormone

Some people call it the “pleasure hormone.” Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that provides an immediate feeling of pleasure. But this molecule has a much darker side, involved in the mechanisms of addiction and the development of specific pathologies such as Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, or even schizophrenia. 

Definition: what is dopamine?

Dopamine is a biochemical molecule that belongs to the catecholamine group. It comes from two amino acids: tyrosine and phenylalanine. It is produced in the brain (and more precisely in the substantia nigra and in the ventral tegmental area located in the midbrain (upper part of the brainstem)). Dopamine plays an essential modulatory role in motor and psychological functions.

The expert clarifies: “Disturbed dopamine levels are still involved in certain mental illnesses such as behaviour disorders and schizophrenia. 

Role: what is dopamine used for?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger that ensures the transmission of information from one nerve cell ( neuron ) to another by crossing the space between these cells, the synapse.

Dopamine, a pleasure hormone

Dopamine is believed to be at the origin of the feeling of pleasure when carrying out certain activities, including behaviors essential to survival. It can be the act of feeding, hydrating, reproducing, or even caring for your child. The release of dopamine would allow instant happiness (we speak of an encouraging “reward circuit”) . the individual to renew these practices.

Dopamine: hormone or neurotransmitter?

We often talk about dopamine as a neurotransmitter. Still, it is also a hormone produced by the hypothalamus ( neurohormone ).

Its primary hormonal function is to limit the release of prolactin from the pituitary gland. The main physiological action of prolactin occurs in women: the gradual rise in prolactin in the blood during pregnancy creates the conditions for postpartum lactation. We, therefore, understand why certain medications such as neuroleptics (or antipsychotics ), which limit the release of dopamine (anti-dopaminergic drugs ), can be responsible for hyperprolactinemia (which results in specific symptoms such as a flow of milk in women or erectile dysfunction in men).

Dopamine and Serotonin: what is the difference?

Dopamine is the hormone of immediate pleasure. “For its part, serotonin is better known as a “happiness hormone,” stabilizing mood over time. Serotonin is also widely used in the treatment of depression, via serotonergic antidepressants”, after the specialist.

What are the signs of a lack of dopamine?

A lack of dopamine in specific brain regions can explain the development of certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s or attention deficit disorder (ADHD).

Dopamine and Parkinson’s disease

Degeneration of dopamine neurons leads to motor disorders associated with Parkinson’s disease. This chronic disease develops slowly and progressively. Before the first symptoms appear, the preclinical phase of the illness may last several years. During this period, the brain compensates for the drop in dopamine through plasticity processes, allowing normal brain function. Patients remain asymptomatic until more than half of the dopamine neurons are destroyed, and the brain can no longer compensate.

Dopamine and ADHD

A lack of dopamine could explain attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Such a hypothesis arose from the observation that methylphenidate, the primary drug treatment for ADHD, increased dopaminergic transmission in the brain. In reality, the mechanism of action is not limited only to the increase in dopamine between neurons. This drug also allows a better affinity of dopamine with the synapse (between two neurons). Thus, signal transmission is improved.

Schizophrenia: what are the effects of excess dopamine?

Conversely, an excess of dopamine release would cause psychiatric symptoms, particularly the so-called “positive” manifestations of schizophrenia. These are the most impressive behaviors in this disease, such as delusions, aggression, and hallucinations.

What stimulates dopamine?

It is possible to stimulate your production of dopamine by practicing certain simple activities that provide it, such as eating, hydrating yourself, indulging in sexual pleasure, having a rich social life, maintaining regular physical and intellectual activity, etc.

In order to increase dopamine release, it may also be recommended to:

Pet an animal is a natural way to combat stress and depression (source 1). A cuddly moment with a furry companion would significantly increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain;

Take a cold shower: This can significantly increase our dopamine levels, according to some studies; expose yourself to natural light. The latter amplifies the production of dopamine by the retina;

Listen to music: When we listen to a melody we like, the neural circuits that come into play are those involved in motivation and reward mechanisms. The release of dopamine can then have the effect of a real “shot,” leading to euphoria.

Dopamine: Beware of addiction!

Unfortunately, certain behaviors that cause an increased release of dopamine can lead to a state of addiction. This is the case with tobacco, alcohol, drugs, intensive sports, games of chance and money, eating disorders. “In return for the pleasure provided by these practices, the brain will ask to continue to consume. Dopamine delivers a feeling of intense well-being, excitement, and self-confidence,” explains the expert. 

Initially, these products and practices do indeed provide satisfaction. They reduce stress and strengthen morale and self-confidence. Unfortunately, while they lead to ecstasy, they also alter other brain systems, notably those regulating our well-being. Thus, these addictive practices are no longer carried out “for pleasure” but only to escape a negative emotional state.

What medications regulate dopamine?

Certain medications have an action on the regulation of dopamine:

  • Neuroleptics are prescribed to limit the movement of dopamine and avoid positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations ;
  • In Parkinson’s disease, to compensate for the dopamine deficiency, patients are prescribed L-dopa (levodopa), a direct precursor of dopamine, but also inhibitors of the enzymes that degrade dopamine ( monoamine inhibitors). -type B oxidase, CO-methyltransferase inhibitors );
  • Methylphenidate, the primary drug treatment for ADHD, increases the transmission of dopamine between neurons and improves the affinity of this neurotransmitter with the synapse.

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