Modified on: 20/09/2022
The reward system influences our decisionsDo you know that feeling of pleasure makes you want to seek out a stimulus repeatedly? Well, in straightforward terms, that’s what dopamine does. The reaction triggers in our bodies can influence our daily decisions based on what we perceive as pleasant and satisfying.
What is dopamine? How does it affect our bodies?Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a substance that transmits information between neurons across synapses. Its main functions can be traced back to the brain’s reward system and the movement of the human body. This may seem like a complicated issue in this light, but it is pretty simple. The release of this substance determines how we choose to act in our daily lives, defining what we perceive as rewarding or unrewarding behaviour. Dopamine can influence our decisions based on what is known as the ‘reward system’. What is this? And how does this system work? Several factors influence human behaviour. The main ones are undoubtedly our basic needs: drinking, eating, sleeping and covering ourselves. But, in addition to these, others generate a pleasant feeling of pleasure when satisfied. This feeling is called reward. So how does the brain recognise, on a practical level, a behaviour that causes us pleasure? Through dopamine, which is responsible for conveying the message. To give a simple example, do you know that mouth-watering feeling you get when you are in front of your favourite dish? All thanks to this molecule, which alerts the neurons that something good is about to happen. Same story for sexual arousal. Our body expects pleasurable sensations to reward engaging in a particular behaviour. As well as influencing our momentary mood, dopamine strengthens the network of synapses between neurons. In doing so, the reward system pushes us towards performing those behaviours recognised as fulfilling. This particular mechanism also played a key role in the evolution of humans: it may be the feeling of reward associated with food that made us survive as a species. The absence of such a system would have led our ancestors to suffer starvation and even death. Therefore, the reward system can motivate us to repeat behaviours that we perceive as pleasurable. However, what it fails to do is to recognise whether those same behaviours are positive and constructive for our organism or not at all. For our system, there is no difference between the reward caused by the physiological need to eat and the reward caused by the immoderate consumption of sweets, for example. The same argument applies to cannabis and its effects. The psychotropic experience of consuming marijuana is a pleasurable experience at a neuronal level that can be repeated. This habit can undoubtedly generate pleasant sensations, but moderation is required! Certain behaviours can adversely affect the organism, primarily if they are carried out constantly and continuously. Overstimulating the reward system linked to these experiences is a constant drive to pursue these feelings, regardless of the long-term effects. On this subject, let’s see how cannabis and dopamine interact.
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Marijuana and dopamine: how do they affect each other?To understand how these two substances interact, we need to know more about the endocannabinoid system and its functions. This system comprises endocannabinoids, small molecules that carry messages between cells by activating specific receptors called CB1 and CB2. The functions of the endocannabinoid system concern the regulation of a whole range of physiological and cognitive functions, such as mood or appetite. This system relies on endocannabinoids – which, as the name suggests, are present within the body and are self-produced – but also on exocannabinoids, which are introduced from outside. The best-known exocannabinoids are undoubtedly THC and CBD, which are contained in cannabis. Of these two, we can say that THC, in particular, has a reasonably close relationship with dopamine and can influence its levels both in the short and long term, albeit indirectly. When cannabis is consumed, tetrahydrocannabinol binds to specific receptors responsible for regulating dopamine release. How does it do this? By blocking the inhibition of the receptor, which consequently releases significantly more dopamine than it does in response to so-called normal stimuli. The direct consequences of this are the feeling of pleasure associated with the psychotropic effect of marijuana and the urge to repeat. But can these particular chemical reactions have short- and long-term consequences? Let us look at them together.
What are the effects of cannabis on dopamine?Looking at the effects of cannabis on dopamine levels in the body, a distinction must be made between short-term and long-term effects. Further aspects to consider when considering the consequences of marijuana use are undoubtedly frequency and quantity. Concerning the short-term effects, it has been shown that the absorption of THC causes an increase in the amount of dopamine released into the bloodstream. This means that tetrahydrocannabinol directly influences the action of the reward system. The tangible consequences of this phenomenon are temporary feelings of euphoria, relaxation, motivation and creativity. However, these sensations will disappear with constant and prolonged use. As for the long-term effects, long-term cannabis use leads to irreversible changes in the dopaminergic system. In addition, it appears that adjustment to significant levels of THC is directly linked to low levels of motivation and the frequent presence of negative emotions.
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