Dopamine is involved in drug reinforcement but its role in addiction is less clear. Here we describe PET imaging studies that investigate dopamine's involvement in drug abuse in the human brain. In humans the reinforcing effects of drugs are associated with large and fast increases in extracellular dopamine, which mimic those induced by physiological dopamine cell firing but are more intense and protracted. Since dopamine cells fire in response to salient stimuli, supraphysiological activation by drugs is experienced as highly salient (driving attention, arousal, conditioned learning and motivation) and with repeated drug use may raise the thresholds required for dopamine cell activation and signaling. Indeed, imaging studies show that drug abusers have marked decreases in dopamine D2 receptors and in dopamine release. This decrease in dopamine function is associated with reduced regional activity in orbitofrontal cortex (involved in salience attribution; its disruption results in compulsive behaviors), cingulate gyrus (involved in inhibitory control; its disruption results in impulsivity) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (involved in executive function; its disruption results in impaired regulation of intentional actions). In parallel, conditioning triggered by drugs leads to enhanced dopamine signaling when exposed to conditioned cues, which then drives the motivation to procure the drug in part by activation of prefrontal and striatal regions. These findings implicate deficits in dopamine activity-inked with prefrontal and striatal deregulation-in the loss of control and compulsive drug intake that results when the addicted person takes the drugs or is exposed to conditioned cues. The decreased dopamine function in addicted individuals also reduces their sensitivity to natural reinforcers. Therapeutic interventions aimed at restoring brain dopaminergic tone and activity of cortical projection regions could improve prefrontal function, enhance inhibitory control and interfere with impulsivity and compulsive drug administration while helping to motivate the addicted person to engage in non-drug related behaviors.
- Cingulate gyrus
- Dopamine D2 receptors
- Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
- Orbitofrontal cortex
- Positron emission tomography