Dopamine, Pleasure, and Motivation

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Are you sitting at your computer hoping your blog writes itself? If so you could be in need of some dopamine. That's right; the drug long associated with pleasure may actually work differently than originally thought. For the past few decades, many scientists believed that high levels of dopamine in the brain will lead to the experience of pleasure. Professor John Salamone of UConn contends that dopamine does not have a direct impact on pleasure, but motivation.


            Dopamine has been heavily ingrained into our society as a drug associated with pleasure. A quick Google search brings up many credible websites (Psychology Today, Cornell research, and HowStuffWorks) all backing the connection between pleasure and dopamine. This has been one of the hardest problems that professor Salamone has faced since revealing his studies data. "He points out that new ideas in science are traditionally met with criticism. But after all the mounting evidence, he says he's no longer regarded as 'a crazy rebel'... Science is not a collection of facts. It's a process," he says. "First we thought dopamine was involved only in movement. Then that faded and we thought it was pleasure. Now we've gone beyond that data on pleasure."[1] Similar to many of the topics we have discussed in class, Salamone was faced with criticism at first, but through the peer review process, his data has been met with more openness.

            So how did Salamone come to the conclusion that dopamine actually affects our motivation? It came from his observations of animals, and even combat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Animals that have just lost a fight may have a jump in dopamine due to stress, while veterans with PTSD may have spikes in dopamine after hearing gunshots or combat sounds. This brought up the question, why would a pleasure drug be associated with bad experiences? Salamone set up an experiment with mice, placing a small pile of food at one end of a corridor, and a larger pile of food at the other end, but with a small fence in between. He found that mice with low amounts of dopamine were more likely to take the easier path and eat the small pile of food, while mice with large quantities of dopamine were more likely to do more work in return for a greater reward. "Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself."1

            This discovery has implications of how depression will be studied. People who suffer from depression generally have lower levels of dopamine. However, that does not mean that they can't have fun. If their friends come over they can still experience pleasure. It is just that they are much less likely to go out and have fun, as opposed to the easier option of staying in one's house/apartment for the night. This also helps to explain how amphetamines work, causing a person's dopamine levels to rise. With higher dopamine levels, they are more motivated to work and get things done. The possibilities remain endless on how this new information can be applied, whether it involves treating drug addiction, helping veterans with PTSD, or helping people who suffer from depression.

1 Comment

Having a friend that suffers from depression, seeing this blog makes it easier to understand why she is the way she is. It also explains why I feel like I can breeze through my homework when I'm in a really good mood.
Hopefully with this information, new forms of therapy regarding dopamine can aid people suffering from different forms of depression.

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