Drug addiction and the brain: effects of dopamine on addiction

BOSTON, MA — New research on the brain is showing that addiction is a matter of memories, and recovery is a slow process in which the influence of those memories is diminished, reports the January 2007 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Studies have shown that addictive drugs stimulate a reward circuit in the brain. The circuit provides incentives for action by registering the value of important experiences. Rewarding experiences trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine, telling the brain "do it again." What makes permanent recovery difficult is drug-induced change that creates lasting memories linking the drug to a pleasurable reward.

Recent research shows that addiction involves many of the same brain circuits that govern learning and memory. Long-term memories are formed by the activity of brain substances called transcription factors. All perceived rewards, including drugs, increase the concentration of transcription factors. So repeatedly taking drugs can change the brain cells and make the memory of the pleasurable effects very strong. Even after transcription factor levels return to normal, addicts may remain hypersensitive to the drug and the cues that predict its presence. This can heighten the risk of relapse in addicts long after they stop taking the drug.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »