What Makes Dopamine Special?

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Answer: Dopamine mediates how we experience pleasure, reward, joy and contentment.


Dopamine is the currency the brain uses to assign importance to behaviours, and it is directly connected to our survival drive, for example, eating, drinking and mating. However, dopamine flow can be disrupted or impeded by genetic problems and also by prolonged stress. US-based research suggests that perhaps 30% of the populous have a genetically acquired dopamine deficiency.


Being low on dopamine doesn’t feel good; I guess you can see where this is going – we, of course, don’t want to feel that way and as a result, seek to fill in the shortfall in dopamine availability. The resultant need to meet dopamine deficits becomes the driver of addictive behaviours (substance or process) and related conditions such as anxiety and depression. Low dopamine has also been linked to compulsive and obsessive behaviours and personality disorders, as well as, attention and focus challenges.


Dopamine is released via a Brain Reward Cascade (BRC) that involves numerous neurochemicals and processes. Gene variations may impinge upon the Brain Reward Cascade’s ability to produce dopamine. A significant deficit in dopamine availability that can occur as a result of an underperforming (BRC) is known as a Reward Deficiency Disorder (RDS).


Brain Reward Cascade

Blum K, Modestino EJ, Gondré-Lewis MC, Chapman EJ, Neary J, et al. (2017) The Benefits of Genetic Addiction Risk Score (GARS™) Testing in Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Int J Genom Data Min: IJGD-115. DOI: 10.29014/IJGD-115. 000015


In other words, when it comes to experiencing pleasure, reward, joy and contentment, my genetic disposition may be limiting my potential to do so.


The way to have more of these experiences is to have a dopamine balance (homeostasis) operating in our brain and in particular in its reward circuitry. Achieving this balance is critical to treating all addictive and other agitating behaviours.


RDS and Me?


An indicator that you may have inherited gene variation(s) for dopamine deficiency is if you feel significantly better after engaging in a substance or behaviour that elevates your dopamine level, especially if you are stressed, sad or depressed.


If this is the case, you will quickly learn that problems are “solved” with that substance or behaviour. The impact of this solution is only temporarily felt but learning how to change your mood artificially--if just for a little while, suggests RDS. Self-medicating with substances or behaviours in this way leads to the development of addictive problems.


Low Dopamine


Inflating natural dopamine levels artificially to induce a "high" with substances or behaviours depletes the brain's natural dopamine resources. For example, Cocaine use inflates dopamine levels by 350-400% and Methamphetamines by 1200-1500%. There is a price to pay for these unnatural distortions in brain chemistry.


The neurobiological result of increasingly using a mood-altering substance or engaging in an addictive behaviour to feel better, is that you will actually feel worse. A dopamine deficit creates "Anhedonia", or the inability to feel happy, contented and appreciate natural rewards and beauty, obviously this is a big issue. It is also a reason to “solve” your problem, again.


Establishing Dopamine Homeostasis


Rectifying the damage caused by unnatural distortions of the dopamine system can take time and require abstinence to achieve - something to think about if you are already experiencing some of the downside effects of dopamine deficiency and considering “managing” your way through it somehow while still partaking in addictive behaviours.


As we know, for many, abstinence alone is not enough. Numerous other factors such as stress, connections, support, and other environmental variables impact outcomes, as will addressing RDS.


RDS helps us view Use Disorders, Depression, Anxiety, Stress disorders, Problems with Attention and Focus, Overeating, Obesity, Gaming and other conditions in a new light, as what they have in common is a Dopamine Deficits in critical areas of the brain.


More to follow….