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What is Dopamine?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is produced by the brains of many organisms, including humans. Like many neurotransmitters, it has several different functions. It plays a critical role in the function of the central nervous system, and it is also linked with the brain's complex system of motivation and reward. Altered levels of this neurotransmitter in the brain can cause a range of symptoms and problems, ranging from Parkinson's disease to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

The discovery of dopamine as a distinct neurotransmitter was made in 1952 in Sweden. It is a member of the catecholamine family of neurotransmitters, which includes adrenaline and noradrenaline. All of these substances are classified as monoamines, which means that their chemical structure includes an amino group linked with an aromatic ring. The brain biosynthesizes dopamine, taking advantage of precursors produced by or introduced to the body.

In the realm of the central nervous system, dopamine helps the body function smoothly. A decline in this neurotransmitter had been classically linked with Parkinson's Disease, a disease characterized by problems with the central nervous system. Low levels make patients shaky, weak, and confused, and many Parkinson's patients have imperfect control over their bodies.

Dopamine also plays a role in addiction, because it is part of the brain's system of motivation. Some drugs stimulate its production, leading to increased levels and a corresponding high. When the drug exits the system, it leaves behind a sense of depression and a slowdown, which can only be remedied by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter again. The brain quickly learns to seek out drugs that will stimulate production, leading to addiction.

This neurotransmitter is also associated with some psychological conditions, such as psychosis and schizophrenia. It also seems to be involved in attention disorders like ADD, typically in situations where decreased levels make it hard for people to focus.

Because dopamine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, when it is required in neurological treatment, medical professionals cannot simply give their patients the neurotransmitter directly. Instead, they provide precursors that can cross the barrier, allowing the brain to make it on its own. The neurotransmitter is also sometimes introduced to the bloodstream in treatment for some conditions, since it acts as a diuretic in the body, increasing kidney output. It also raises blood pressure.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon958538 — On Jun 28, 2014

@kchd: It's common for heart patients to be on dopamine, dobutamine, levophed, epinephrine, and neosynephrine in the hospital if they have poor heart function or pre-existing heart failure from previous heart attacks.

The fact that your husband had a heart attack while on dopamine is probably only coincidence (provided the dosage was appropriate). Don't be hard on yourself with regret. Although I do think it would be odd that the doctors wouldn't talk to you about it. Usually they are very open to questions from family members.

By anon346232 — On Aug 26, 2013

Is there anyone who agrees that the slang term dope came from dopamine? I think it did. There are so many people using street drugs not to get high but for simple dopamine due to having low levels of the dopamine. I know that's what happened to me. Using it for medication so I can be productive vs lying around with no up and go developing congestive heart failure and or heart failure. Anyone else agree with me? --AP

By anon346227 — On Aug 26, 2013

My dopamine level so low I am unable to stand up at times with an extreme fluctuating blood pressure. I won't live much longer without help. What legal prescription medications will raise my dopamine level? Also, what part of your body is not producing enough? Is this related to a gland issue?

I am not getting enough dopamine to get a strong p wave or a stable qrs. The heart hospital cardiologist group in Oklahoma City does not handle this type of health issue so I have not had much help. Hope you can help. I can relay this information to the OKC cardiology group just in case they have patients like me that may die without help. --ACP

By anon334584 — On May 13, 2013

Sounds like you need to be talking to an attorney. That's malpractice. It's no wonder they don't want to talk about it.

By anon235285 — On Dec 16, 2011

My husband went to the hospital because he felt like he was holding too much water. He was a heart patient. The doctor started giving him dopamine intravenously and my husband had another heart attack before he had finished giving it to him and he died.

I tried to get the doctors to talk about it and they just refused to discuss it. I've wished so many times we had not gone to the hospital. --Kchd

By Babalaas — On Jul 11, 2010

@ Fiorite- Direct acting drugs usually create an “up” high while indirect acting drugs create a depressing or “down” high. This is due to the way they react with neurons in the brain.

The difference between the high in heroin and cocaine is partly due to how they affect dopamine production. Heroin and direct acting drugs send flood receptors with dopamine but do not stimulate neurons into sending more neurotransmitters. This means that your euphoria is increased, but neuron activity is not; causing the signature depressed state of being.

Conversely, stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine attack neurons, frenzying them and causing an increase in the flow of dopamine neurotransmitters. Like downers, stimulants cause a flood of neurotransmitters, but they also stimulate dopamine transmitters; giving the addict that feeling of alertness.

By Fiorite — On Jul 11, 2010

Drugs affect dopamine receptors both directly and indirectly.

In direct acting drugs like heroin, Oxycontin, and other opiates, the drugs chemical structure mimics dopamine neurotransmitters, attaching directly to the dopamine receptors of a neuron. These drugs create the feeling of euphoria by flooding receptors with natural and synthetic dopamine.

Indirect acting drugs like cocaine and amphetamines create a high by attaching to neurotransmitters and causing them to send more dopamine to the receptors than normal. This rush of dopamine is what creates the sensation of excitement and the upper high.

By medicchristy — On Jul 11, 2010

One way that dopamine is used medically is in the treatment of hypovolemic shock. This happens when a person’s blood volume is very low. Dopamine, given IV, will cause the heart to beat harder and raise the patient’s blood pressure. This protects vital organs such as the brain from tissue damage by allowing those organs to receive oxygen from the blood.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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