What Does Dopamine Do In The Brain, And What Is Its Function?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention topics that include prescription medication, misuse of medication, and addiction. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have.

Dopamine may be one of the most well-known of the body's many neurotransmitters, with over 110,000 research papers to its name. It usually has multiple functions, mainly involving pleasure and movement. It can play a role in addiction, memory, focus, happiness, and sleep as well. Problems with dopamine levels are usually best solved with a holistic approach and the help of a licensed professional. Online therapy may be one way to address mental health challenges related to dopamine.

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Are low dopamine levels negatively impacting your life?

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is generally considered to be a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical messenger that sends information between neurons. Neurons can be defined as the basic units of our nervous system, which normally includes the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and sense organs, like the ears and eyes. Dopamine is commonly associated with the brain's pleasure and reward system, but it can also play a role in controlling physical movement.

Dopamine is usually found in two areas of the brain. The first may be the substantia nigra, which normally handles rewards and movement. Most dopamine is produced in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which can be seen as the main player in the brain's pleasure and reward signaling center. Dopamine created in the VTA can be released into other areas of the brain when you do something that warrants a reward or pleasure response, or when you anticipate a reward. The behaviors that trigger this reward response may include pleasurable activities like sex, as well as behaviors we need to survive on a daily basis, such as drinking water and eating. 

Releasing dopamine, and thus, experiencing a feeling of pleasure, can be seen as one of our body's mechanisms to ensure we continue engaging in the necessary behaviors for good health.

When you engage in behavior that your brain perceives as pleasurable, dopamine may be released, and the behavior may be signaled as one that merits a reward. This can motivate you to perform the behavior again in the future. Dopamine can be considered the primary neurotransmitter involved in the brain's reward system. It may not directly cause pleasure, but it can reinforce behaviors that bring about a pleasurable reaction. 

What does dopamine do?

Dopamine's two primary functions may be motivation and movement. However, dopamine can also play a role in other cognitive functions, such as memory and focus.

Dopamine and movement 

Dopamine produced in the substantia nigra (part of the basal ganglia region of the brain) usually helps control movement. The basal ganglia may control many aspects of bodily movement and rely on the secretion of dopamine to function properly. Dopamine is usually necessary for controlled movement to occur normally.

When this facilitation is disrupted and not enough dopamine reaches the substantia nigra, movement and control of motor functions can be greatly reduced. Researchers have found that Parkinson’s disease, which is often characterized by delayed or uncontrollable movements, may be caused by a lack of dopamine in the substantia nigra. Conversely, when the basal ganglia are overloaded with dopamine, the body can make too many movements. These uncontrolled, unnecessary movements can be a common characteristic of Tourette Syndrome. 

Dopamine and addiction

While our brain’s reward system is generally designed to motivate us to carry out behaviors that benefit our health, it can also motivate harmful behaviors when dopamine is artificially stimulated. Some substances can trigger a much higher release of dopamine than natural triggers like eating or sex. This excess of dopamine can lead to the euphoric feeling one may experience after using these substances, but it can also interfere with the brain's natural dopamine cycle. 

Misusing substances can severely impact the body’s ability to correctly release dopamine. The brain usually responds to the extremely high levels of dopamine released by substance use by producing less of its own dopamine. The rush of dopamine experienced when using substances can also contribute to addiction. The brain may begin to associate usage of the substance with the reward of high dopamine levels. Someone using substances may become motivated to repeat the behavior to experience the same reward, potentially leading to a cycle of addiction. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

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Dopamine and memory

One of the lesser-known functions of dopamine may be its role in memory. Dopamine secretions in the prefrontal cortex can help facilitate memory processing. This can be considered a highly delicate function of dopamine, so even the slightest variation in the number of dopamine secretions in the prefrontal cortex can severely impact one's memory.

Dopamine can also explain why we tend to be more prone to remembering things that interest us. When something is interesting or exciting to us, we may get a spike of dopamine because the learning experience was pleasurable. The dopamine secreted in the prefrontal cortex may activate our memory, helping us remember what we were learning. Conversely, when we find a subject boring, the lowered dopamine in the prefrontal cortex may make it harder for us to remember what we learned.

Dopamine and focus

Another function of dopamine can be its role in focus and attention. Dopamine generally responds to the optic nerves (the nerves used for vision) to help you focus your attention on a specific activity. When you are visually focusing on something, dopamine can help you remember it in your short-term memory. 

Dopamine and happiness

Although dopamine may play a role in mood, it may not directly relate to the production of the chemical cocktail known as happiness. Instead, dopamine can be directly linked to an individual’s reward center. Eating a delicious piece of fruit, for instance, can trigger dopamine, in part because eating itself can trigger dopamine, and partly because sugar can trigger dopamine production. 

Because dopamine is usually released via the brain’s reward center, it could even be argued that dopamine may play a role in feeling down. If you are accustomed to the ongoing dopamine “hit” gleaned from certain activities, you may feel restless, frustrated, or low until you are able to return to the source of your dopamine trigger. 

While it may seem simple enough to identify a single chemical source of happiness, the body’s hormonal processes and neurotransmitters may converge to create a complex and interrelated mass of responses and reactions, which may, in turn, cause a wide range of emotions.

Dopamine and sleep

Dopamine can help us feel more awake, and the body usually produces more of it during daytime hours. As night falls, dopamine levels typically fall as well, which may help us feel tired and ready for bed. People with low dopamine levels or with conditions such as Parkinson's, which is associated with low dopamine levels, may feel chronic tiredness during all hours of the day.

Increasing your dopamine levels

Low dopamine production in the brain can cause symptoms of anxiety and depression or aggravate chronic mental health disorders. A lack of dopamine can be caused by numerous factors, some of which can be relatively easy to remedy, such as a lack of dopamine building blocks in your diet. 

Others may be more complex, such as a breakdown of nerve cells and bodily processes involving neurotransmitters. Additional causes can be psychological and may warrant a consultation with a licensed mental health professional who can treat conditions like depression, anxiety, and addiction. 

In many cases, there is not a single cause of dopamine depletion. Instead, a lack of dopamine can often be remedied by a holistic treatment approach. Therapy and lifestyle changes, such as improved diet, increased exercise, human connection, meditation, and spending time outdoors, can all be natural ways of increasing dopamine production.

Seeking treatment 

Some research suggests that lowered dopamine may play a role in depression, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses. If you have depression or addiction concerns, you may consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for support. A therapist can help you develop a holistic plan for improving your mood, energy, and motivation. 

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Are low dopamine levels negatively impacting your life?

Help through online therapy

If you’re experiencing challenges that can come with low levels of dopamine, such as depression, it may be difficult to leave the house for an in-person therapy appointment. Online therapy can empower you to get the help you deserve from the comfort of your home at a time that fits your schedule. You may also change therapists until you find one who suits your needs and preferences.

A 2017 systematic review that investigated the efficacy of online cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder found that it could be an efficacious treatment option. This study joins a growing body of evidence that generally supports the idea that online and in-person therapy tend to be equally effective.

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Takeaway

Dopamine can be considered an important neurotransmitter that usually helps us feel pleasure and motivation. It may have a direct role in memory, energy levels, and feelings of pleasure. If you’re experiencing mental health concerns and believe they could be caused by low levels of dopamine, an online or in-person therapist can help you create a holistic treatment plan.
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