The reward system can influence our decision-making processes
Many of the decisions we make during our daily lives may seem rational, but in reality, they result from a complex biological process.
When our brain derives pleasure from a specific action, it releases dopamine which – we will see how – can push us to seek that feeling again and again unconsciously.
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But how does it work in detail? How can this transmitter play a key role in our decision-making process?
In this article, I explain what dopamine is, how the system it is part of works and how it reacts to the intake of cannabis.
Dopamine: what is it and how does it affect us?
Dopamine, as mentioned above, is one of the many neurotransmitters that operate in our body and performs an essential function: it transmits information between neurons across synapses.
In particular, it is part of the so-called reward system of the brain and is also involved in the mechanism responsible for the movement of the human body.
Understanding how it works may seem complicated, but it isn’t that complicated.
Let’s find out more, then.
By releasing this substance, our organism defines what is perceived as a satisfying action for us or not, thus influencing our future decisions in this regard.
It is no coincidence that the system that manages all these processes is known as the reward system.
But what is it more precisely? And how does it work in practice?
Multiple factors condition human behaviour. Among these, we find man’s basic needs, i.e. covering oneself, sleeping, drinking and eating.
But that is not all. There is a whole series of other needs, defined as secondary, which – once satisfied – provoke a feeling of pleasure in us. This feeling is called reward.
But how does the brain understand that the cause of our pleasure is a specific behaviour?
Using dopamine, which conveys the message to our neurons. Who has never had their mouth water when faced with their favourite dish… Here, this is a clear example of how dopamine works. By recognising a situation already experienced as satisfying, it alerts your brain that something is about to happen that will give you pleasure.
The same applies to sexual arousal. The body expects to experience feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as a logical consequence of performing a specific action.
Dopamine, therefore, conditions our momentary moods by reinforcing the network of synapses between neurons and, in this way, prompts the reward system to demand the performance of that particular behaviour considered a source of fulfilment.
This system, therefore, has the power to induce in us the reiteration of behaviour that gives us any satisfaction.
But beware! Unfortunately, recognising whether that same behaviour is healthy and constructive is a different kettle of fish and does not fall within the rewards system’s remit.
For our organism, there is no difference between the satisfaction generated by a good, healthy and balanced meal and a gorge of sweets. On the contrary, it is well established that the feeling of reward induced by sugar intake is much more pronounced.
As you can see, therefore, the brain – in this case, we are speaking from a chemical and not a rational point of view – cannot distinguish a positive stimulus from one that, if exaggerated, will be nothing but a source of problems of various kinds.
This mechanism is precisely the starting point of various addictions, such as those to alcohol or drugs. And cannabis is no exception.
Smoking marijuana elicits a response from the reward system because of the pleasurable sensations it induces in those who take it. Still, this behaviour – carried out consistently and over a long period – can have negative consequences for our organism.
Therefore, the consumption of cannabis, like that of chocolate, for example, should not be done excessively but in moderation.
The excessive strengthening of the network of synapses associated with this attitude can lead to a constant and excessive pursuit of the sensation that gives rise to it – in this case, the intake of marijuana – without assessing the long-term consequences.
But how do cannabis and dopamine interact? Let’s see in the next section.
How do marijuana and dopamine affect each other?
Before turning to the chemical relationship between cannabis and dopamine, let’s take a step back and briefly examine how the endocannabinoid system works.
This system uses small vector molecules, called endocannabinoids, which transmit messages between cells through activating two primary receptors, CB1 and CB2.
The endocannabinoid system’s function is to regulate the body’s homeostasis, i.e. to maintain internal balance despite changes in external conditions.
This is achieved by regulating numerous physiological and cognitive processes, including mood, appetite and sleep.
As the name suggests, endocannabinoids are self-produced in our bodies. Our internal system, however, also interacts with endocannabinoids that are introduced from outside.
Both medicinal drugs, also known as synthetic cannabinoids, and phytocannabinoids, which are contained in certain plants, including marijuana, belong to endocannabinoids.
The best-known phytocannabinoids are, in fact, THC and CBD, the primary active ingredients of cannabis, and among them, the former has a relatively close relationship with dopamine.
It also has the ability to influence its levels in the short and long term.
When the body ingests cannabis, THC interacts with the receptors responsible for regulating dopamine release, inhibiting them.
The result? A significantly greater release of dopamine than that released under normal response conditions.
To recap: dopamine levels make us perceive certain behaviours as satisfying, and THC induces a more significant release of dopamine. Therefore, it causes the body to perceive marijuana intake as satisfying and try replicating the behaviour to enjoy it again.
If we then consider the aspect of tolerance – that is, the body’s ability to become accustomed to the substances taken, requiring progressively larger doses to achieve the same effects – it is straightforward to understand how easy it is to fall into the tunnel of drug addiction.
But what are the consequences of these chemical reactions?
The effects of cannabis on dopamine in the short and long term
The consequences of marijuana on dopamine levels are different when considered over the short or long term.
In this consideration, the amount of cannabis taken and the frequency with which this occurs plays a key role.
Speaking of short-term effects, the body’s reaction to the intake of THC is to increase the amount of dopamine released.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, therefore, appears to have a direct influence on the functioning of the reward system.
Turning instead to the long-term consequences of marijuana use, it appears that long-term consumption induces irreversible changes in the dopaminergic system.
It appears that the habit of THC intake is directly linked to considerably low motivational levels and frequent experiencing negative moods.
To conclude, what is the relationship between marijuana and dopamine?
To understand how the interaction between cannabis and dopamine works, it is necessary to investigate the mechanism that regulates the functions of the endocannabinoid system. In particular, the intake of cannabinoids – primarily THC – can influence the brain’s reward system.
The consequences in the short term consist of increased levels of dopamine in the body. In contrast, in the long term, on the other hand, it appears that constant consumption leads to a progressive increase in tolerance to THC and, consequently, to a decrease in sensitivity to dopamine release.
It appears that subjects who have used marijuana for long periods are often subject to negative moods and have lower levels of personal motivation.
In short, to benefit from the positive effects of cannabis use, it is necessary not to overdo it.
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