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Dopamine is a catecholamine neurotransmitter, classified with other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and epinephrine. A series of hydroxylases synthesize dopamine from the amino acid tyrosine to L-DOPA, dopamine’s precursor. Dopamine production takes place across the body by dopaminergic cells in your nervous system, your kidneys,1 and gastrointestinal tract2. Dopamine acts by binding to one of five types of dopamine receptors to mediate dopamine activity3. Dopamine activity also occurs when dopamine binds to adrenergic receptors in the heart and other organs4.

Dopamine plays various functions across the human brain. Dopamine contributes to cognitive control in the prefrontal cortex by binding to D1R and D2R, two kinds of dopamine receptors5. Dopamine also acts as a chemical messenger. Dopamine travels through the bloodstream to activate prolactin inhibiting hormone and prolactin inhibiting factor production6. Both prevent prolactin secretion at the anterior pituitary gland.

Dopamine and drug addiction

In the central nervous system, extracellular vesicles release dopamine from the presynaptic neuron. Upon dopamine release, the neurotransmitter binds to dopamine at the postsynaptic neuron. Each of these components are essential for the brain’s reward system—the process by which neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens7. An aberrant reward system that causes low dopamine levels can drives drug abuse from poor impulse control8. Addictive drugs raise dopamine levels when a person struggles to feel reward from a given activity.

Dopamine and mental disorders

High and low dopamine levels are associated with multiple mental disorders9. Individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have polymorphisms that alter dopamine receptors, reducing dopamine system activity in dopamine pathways10. Individuals with major depressive disorder also do not produce enough dopamine, reporting lowered feelings of satisfaction and pleasure11.

On the other hand, too much dopamine increases the likelihood of experiencing delusions and hallucinations in schizophrenia12. Furthermore, mouse models have demonstrated that increased dopamine levels are associated with worsened symptoms in anxiety disorders13. For these reasons, researchers have developed dopamine antagonists to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Dopamine antagonists block dopamine receptors, reducing dopamine activity.

Dopamine and neurodegenerative diseases

Dopamine plays an important role in neurodegenerative diseases. Increased dopamine catabolism into DOPAL can worsen alpha-synuclein aggregation and reduce brain dopamine levels in Parkinson’s Disease patients14. As Parkinson’s Disease progresses, dopaminergic neurons also degenerate, lowering dopamine levels15. One therapeutic approach to counter the dopamine imbalance employs L-Dopa, the precursor to dopamine molecules. The drug enters the substantia nigra pars compacta through the blood brain barrier where the central nervous system converts Levodopa to dopamine16. As a result, more dopamine is present in the brain to boost dopamine levels even as the brain degenerates.


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