Dopamine Plays a Role in Risk-Taking and Drug Addiction

We all know the type; individuals that seem to love throwing caution to the wind and living life in the fast lane, the high rollers and the big spenders – risk takers. A new study has linked the tendency to be a thrill-seeker in a new way to the brain neurotransmitter, dopamine.

Vanderbilt University Dopamine Study
The results of the study done by researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City studied the connection between dopamine and thrilling behavior, to determine what exactly causes this type of personality. The connection has been assumed by many for some time now, but this study looked at the amount of dopamine receptors present in these individual’s brains, which would tell how the brain regulates its dopamine.

Researchers, led by Professor David Zald at Vanderbilt University, studied 34 men and women and classified whether they were risk-takers or not. By asking the subjects a group of questions that looked at factors such as decision-making speed, spontaneity, and adherence to rules, they ranked the individuals on a “novelty-seeking” scale. Then, using position emission tomography, a PET scan, scientists mapped out the subjects’ brains, and looked especially at their dopamine-regulating receptors. The results were exactly as predicted, according to Zald. “This is one of those situations where the data came out essentially perfectly.”

Those individuals that were classified as novelty-seekers, or risk-takers, had fewer of the dopamine receptors, meaning that their brains don’t limit the amount of dopamine it produces during exciting activities. The result of this is a bigger high for these individuals, leading them to want to continue doing the activities, to maintain the high.

Just like jumping out of a plane, betting on a blackjack table, driving too fast, or spending too much, people who take drugs like cocaine or amphetamines do so because it allows them to artificially produce more dopamine. Dopamine is used in everyday life as the reward system of the brain, and it is also what gives an addict their high.

German Dopamine Study
Another study on dopamine receptors was done in Germany and published in Science in December of last year. This study concluded that while completing a learning task, individuals with fewer dopamine receptors had a weaker reaction to negative feedback, meaning simply that they had a harder time learning from their mistakes.

Application for Addiction Treatment
Now the question is whether or not addicts also have fewer dopamine receptors, causing them to experience bigger highs, or to not care as much about the negative results of their actions, and how we can work to manage this. By prescribing medication that replaces the function of the dopamine receptors, an addict may no longer get as big of a high from the drugs, making them potentially non-addicting.

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