Sunday February 08, 2015

Dopamine - the addiction chemical

Listen 21:52
Image of Brain

Computer artwork of a frontal view of a human brian. In the background is a neural network of nerve cells firing. (Getty Images)

If your own moods and behaviour, let alone the moods and behaviour of the people around you, seem inscrutable and difficult to control, there's probably a good reason for that.

They're dictated by tiny amounts of chemicals and the way they move around and interact with miniscule amounts of other chemicals in our brains. 

There's a whole stew of hormones and neurotransmitters coursing through our bodies and across our synapses. But there's one that seems to get more than its share of press - good and bad. 

 Dopamine makes us sit up and take notice of things. It shapes our cravings and compulsions.

Dopamine is a powerful, complicated and, it seems, rather mischievous chemical. It makes us sit up and take notice of things. It shapes our cravings and compulsions. It helps map our reward pathways and guides us toward things that give us as a pleasurable buzz. And it shapes the way we interact with our societies and our environments. 

It's also widely seen as the chemical culprit behind a host of addictions and harmful behaviour, in addition to playing a role in a number of neurological disorders and mental illnesses.

Bethany Brookshire

Science education writer Bethany Brookshire

Dopamine may be both more celebrated and maligned than it deserves and may not receive the understanding it does deserve. But to set the record straight on dopamine, there is Bethany Brookshire

She's an award-winning science writer who works for The Society for Science and the Public, where she also runs the "Scicurious" blog. She has a PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology, and her doctoral dissertation was on dopamine and another neurotransmitter connected with mood, serotonin.