Our reward system and dopamine: A life-sustaining trap

tThe design of the brain is difficult to understand. Just one example is our dopamine-driven reward system. Without it, we do not exist. With this, we could get caught in a dangerous trap. It’s fascinating and important, so let’s dive in…

‘This disconnection is a trap for addiction as we seek other sources of dopamine. The ‘other sources’ seem strikingly similar to the list of common cultural complaints: overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, consumerism, chronic sexual relationships.’

It is fairly well known that our reward system is a very important factor in substance use disorders.

But what escapes the headlines is its role in any impulse control situation: overeating, gambling problems, excessive Internet use, hypersexual behavior, explosive anger, and more.

And, of course, it can contribute to unhappy moods and anxiety.

I find the rewards system fascinating and relevant to what we do here at Chipur. And I think you will too.

In fact, we will be doing a series on this and will be back shortly with a detailed article on dopamine.

Let’s get busy…

What is the reward system?

The reward system is a set of brain structures and neural pathways responsible for important cognitive functions, such as learning behavior through association (classical conditioning), learning behavior through reward and punishment (classical conditioning). operant), motivation and desire for a reward and positive emotions. especially those involved with pleasure.

By design, the reward system is about survival behaviors: reproduction, feeding, socialization, physical defense.


reward system

Anatomy of the reward system

There are numerous pieces of anatomy that make the reward system work. You can see some of them in the image. However, the heavyweights are the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens (NA).

Interesting: the nucleus accumbens is a target for Deep brain stimulation treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder..

Now, the power line of our reward system is the medial forebrain bundle (MFB). It is the MFB, a neural pathway, that transmits signals from the VTA to the NA. It is not identified in the image, but you can see the green line connecting the two.

It makes sense that the MFB is often referred to as the “hedonistic highway.” Using drugs of abuse (DOA) to illustrate the point, when the MFB is blocked, the craving for DOA is greatly reduced or ceases completely.

Signals passing through the MFB are supported by dopaminergic (dopamine-releasing) neurons. Generally speaking, non-abused drugs have no effect on dopaminergic concentrations.


Trying to cover everything related to the physiology of the reward system would exhaust us both. So let’s fast forward to the appearance of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

If you use a benzodiazepine, such as alprazolam (Xanax) or clonazepam (Klonopin), you will benefit from its impact on GABA-A receptors.

Again, to illustrate a point, DOA acts on GABA receptors, which inhibits the firing of neurons. And that results in the release of less GABA in the dopaminergic neurons.

When that happens, a disinhibition of dopaminergic neurons occurs, which causes them to activate more regularly, releasing more dopamine into our reward system.

And although you may not know it, higher concentrations of dopamine cause feelings of well-being, even euphoria. So the rumor mill is on.


Interestingly, it is through the interaction of GABA with the structures of the limbic system (the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, thalamus, cingulate gyrus, etc.) that we experience reduced anxiety, sedation, and behavioral disinhibition.

So, in fact, the brain components that generate anxiety-reducing effects are, let’s say, an extension of the reward system.

Bottom line: External “substances” (DOA, food, internet porn, social media, and more) enter our bodies and use our reward system to accomplish their mission.

And it quickly becomes a reciprocal relationship. Our reward system ends up needing the substance, just as the substance needs our reward system.

And as often happens, the substance controls the reward system and addiction is underway.

Contributions from Dr. Amy Banks

While preparing this article, I came across an excellent article on the Psychology Today site written by Dr. Amy Banks, co-author of Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships.

Let’s add Dr. Banks’ contribution to our discussion…

Banks begins by noting that dopamine is becoming the most popular neurotransmitter. Because? Is responsible for…

  • The craving many of us experience when smelling our morning coffee
  • The euphoria we feel deeply when we fall in love
  • The excitement of shopping
  • The desire for that second or third glass of wine at dinner

Banks asks, “So what’s the harm? It is a natural, biologically based chemical substance that provides energy and motivation.

Operant conditioning

She answers the question by recalling BF Skinner’s operant conditioning work in the 1950s. Scientists placed electrodes in the limbic system (emotional center) of rats’ brains and gave them a small shock when the rat walked around a corner. specific to a box.

Everyone thought that if the impact was unpleasant enough, the rat would stay away from the corner. Hmm, but something unexpected happened. When the electrode was placed in the nucleus accumbens, instead of avoiding the corner, the rats returned to receive the shock again and again, about 700 times in an hour. They even preferred shock to food.

Banks points out that the behavior was something the rats absolutely “needed” to do.

The bottom line, according to Banks…

The increased motivation and energy that dopamine provides can be a good thing, but when your brain becomes wired into compulsive behaviors that stimulate the dopamine reward pathway (addictions), then your life can be as out of control as the rest of your life. Poor rat from Skinner’s Box.

Dr. Banks believes that dopamine and the reward system are not the problems. No, the problem is how we stimulate the dopamine pathway.

She sums up…

This disconnection is a preparation for addiction as we seek other sources of dopamine. The ‘other sources’ seem strikingly similar to the list of common cultural complaints: overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, consumerism, chronic sexual relationships.

These addictive and destructive behaviors not only combine with the dopamine reward system, but also create an isolating feedback loop that pushes people toward more addictions.

Without healthy relationships, each of us becomes like the rats in Skinner’s box: we look for dopamine in the wrong places. It’s time to rewire our brains to have healthy relationships and connections that reward us with positive energy and motivation.

And there you have it.

run with it

Our reward and dopamine system: absolutely stunning design and mechanics. But as incredible and sustaining as they are, we must be aware of the trap.

I have always relied on understanding the anatomy and physiology of emotional and mental challenges for healing direction and hope.

If you are struggling with impulsive behaviors, even with a mood or anxiety situation, what you just read must have hit home for you.

Now run with it.

Go ahead and check out Dr. Banks’ article, The dopamine reward system: friend or foe?

Image of the reward system: Authors: Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel. Licensed under the Unported Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Without changes.

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