Role of dopamine, the frontal cortex and memory circuits in drug addiction: Insight from imaging studies

Nora D. Volkow, Joanna S. Fowler, Gene Jack Wang, Rita Z. Goldstein

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

421 Scopus citations


Drug addiction is characterized by a set of recurring processes (intoxication, withdrawal, craving) that lead to the relapsing nature of the disorder. We have used positron emission tomography to investigate in humans the role of dopamine (DA) and the brain circuits it regulates in these processes. We have shown that increases in DA are associated with the subjective reports of drug reinforcement corroborating the relevance of drug-induced DA increases in the rewarding effects of drugs in humans. During withdrawal we have shown in drug abusers significant reductions in DA D2 receptors and in DA release. We postulate that this hypodopaminergic state would result in a decreased sensitivity to natural reinforcers perpetuating the use of the drug as a means to compensate for this deficit and contributing to the anhedonia and dysphoria seen during withdrawal. Because the D2 reductions are associated with decreased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus and in the orbitofrontal cortex we postulate that this is one of the mechanisms by which DA disruption leads to compulsive drug administration and the lack of control over drug intake in the drug-addicted individual. This is supported by studies showing that during craving these frontal regions become hyperactive in proportion to the intensity of the craving. Craving is also associated with activation of memory circuits including the amygdala (implicated in conditioned learning), hippocampus (implicated in declarative learning), and dorsal striatum (implicated in habit learning) all of which receive DA innervation. We therefore postulate that dopamine contributes to addiction by disrupting the frontal cortical circuits that regulate motivation, drive, and self-control and by memory circuits that increase the motivational salience of the drug and drug-associated stimuli.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)610-624
Number of pages15
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 2002


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