Dopamine Addiction and Happiness?

Often we read in newspapers about the pursuit of happiness, often sounding as if it were the only thing that people are looking for these days. But what exactly is that happiness we are searching for? Can we really be truly happy? Why does everyone always talk about “looking for happiness”, but not often talk about the happiness we have at the moment.

Life is ever-changing and nothing is really static. That is an inevitable fact. So, what happens to us once we have found “happiness”? Do we continue to look for more happiness and does the happiness we have found then become less happy?

These questions might seem trivial at first glance, but if you examine them closer, you might see that they actually describe a dilemma and a contradiction.

So we have to ask the question, is it happiness we are pursuing or the pursuit of happiness we are pursuing? Is the thought  of the reward or the reward itself what motivates us? Biochemically speaking, we seek out those things that fire up the dopaminergic neurons leading to the release of dopamine. Maybe we have to delve deeper into the biochemistry of this molecule to try to understand what this pursuit of happiness is all about.

Dopamine itself is a small molecule. C8H11NO2. 4-(2-aminoethyl)benzene-1,2-diol. Chemically speaking there is nothing greatly exciting about this formula. However, this molecule is a neurotransmitter and up to now, five receptors have been identified in humans. What a remarkable molecule!

The substance has therefore a role in many cognitive functions ranging from motivation, concentration, higher order movement, sex to what we call reward. In fact, dopamine is the compound associated with reward and thus causes one of the strongest and most desirable emotions.

Neurological functions, neurotransmitters and emotions have been evolving for hundred of thousands of years and are thus strongly coupled to biological necessities. Of course dopamine, in particular in conjunction with sex, has a role in biological reproduction and survival. However, there is a fine line between unwarranted consumption and addiction. Since all signals from our senses are transmitted electrochemically, the reward from any activity comes from the substances in your brain being consumed; thus it can be argued that the biochemistry of dopamine is the reward.

Now it can be argued that many addictions, such as sex, strive for power or other habitual addictions can be attributed to the need of reward, ultimately dopamine. Even addictions such as alcohol or hard drugs are ultimately dependent on dopamine release.


However, once we have achieved a reward and have been fulfilled with “happiness”, the body quickly degrades excess dopamine and we ultimately fall into a low after the reward. Hence, we strive for “happiness” again, or in other words, we are striving for reward again, i.e. dopamine. This is an endless circle and our brain adapts to our ways of life and to what we associate with reward.

Therefore, it is hard to quit eating chocolate and exercise instead, although both activities would release dopamine.

Maybe we can think about our own little “addictions” and instead of indulging in them over and over again, condition our brains to associate other activities with reward. This strategy might help us with our daily struggle and habits and make life more interesting again. However, the stimuli that control our reward centre in the brain are buried in our subconscious and that makes it incredibly difficult to identify them.

Next time you have a habit that you like to break, think about the rewards you might get and how you feel when you anticipate this reward.

Moreover, in my opinion we have to reassess this strive for happiness that is so openly proclaimed nowadays. Is that what we really are looking for or are we subordinate to nature’s most powerful molecules? Does our intellect, as a higher form of evolution, permit us to break free at least partially from our addictions, and the biological processes that can at times control our lives and prevent us from living up to our potential?

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Brain Size May Predict Alzheimer’s Risk Years Before Symptoms Appear

US scientists have found brain scans measuring the thickness of certain regions of the brain may help identify people who have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, and the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, studied MRI scans from 159 cognitively normal older people. The scientists looked at measurements of the brain’s cortex in nine regions that, in earlier studies, have been shown to shrink in Alzheimer’s disease. They theorised that those with a thinner than average cortex would have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, and those with a thicker than average cortex would have lower risk.

The scientists analysed cognitive test results for 125 participants, and found that 21% of those with a thinner cortex showed signs of cognitive decline over three years. In comparison, just 7% of those with a cortex of average thickness showed decline, and among participants with a thicker cortex, none showed a decline.

The researchers also looked at cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples taken from 84 of the participants after three years, checking for levels of amyloid – a hallmark protein found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. They found 60% of those with a thinner cortex had abnormal amyloid levels in their CSF, similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s, compared to 36% of those with a cortex of average thickness and 19% of those with a thicker cortex.

The findings, which are published online today (21 December) in the journal Neurology, add to previous evidence suggesting that brain shrinkage may start years before the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as memory loss, begin to show. The researchers believe that MRI scans measuring cortical thickness may be useful for helping to identify people at greater risk of developing the disease. However, they stress that studies with a longer follow-up period are now needed.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:

“The ability to predict who will develop Alzheimer’s disease is a key target for dementia research, as it would allow new treatments to be trialled early, when they are more likely to be effective. These findings add weight to existing evidence that Alzheimer’s begins long before symptoms appear, although it’s important to note that the study did not assess who went on to develop the disease. This research provides a potential new avenue to follow, but we need to see larger and longer-term studies before we can know whether this type of brain scan could accurately predict Alzheimer’s.

“There are currently 820,000 people in the UK affected by dementia, yet research into the condition is desperately underfunded compared to other serious diseases. We urgently need to invest in research if we are to find new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent dementia.”

For further information, or to speak with Dr Simon Ridley, please contact Kirsty Marais, Media Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK on 01223 843304, 07826 559233 or email press@alzheimersresearchuk.org 

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Virtual Reality Exercise Games May Improve Cognition in Older Adults

Scientists in the US revealed the finding of a clinical trial investigating the effects of “exergaming”, or virtual reality-enhanced exercise, on cognition in a group of older adults. The study, one of the first trials of its kind, showed greater cognitive benefit for those who played exergames than those who took part in traditional exercise.

Of those participants who were enrolled, 63 completed the three month study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. All of the volunteers, aged between 58 and 99 years, rode exercise bikes an average of three times a week. Half of the volunteers rode a traditional exercise bike, whereas half rode a bike equipped with a virtual reality display. This ‘cybercycle’ provided users with 3D tours and allowed them to compete against an avatar of their last performance.

The volunteers were given cognitive assessments at the start of the study and after one and three months. Although there was no difference in exercise frequency, duration and intensity between the two groups, the cybercyclists performed better on a number of cognitive tests. In addition, fewer of the cybercyclists went on to develop mild cognitive impairment, a state of early cognitive impairment not quite severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia.

The scientists also analysed blood samples from 30 of the volunteers for a protective protein called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF). They found higher levels of the BDNF protein in the blood of the cybercyclists than those taking traditional exercise, suggesting that virtual reality-enhanced exercise may stimulate a greater physiological effect in the brain.

Dr Marie Janson of Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:

“We already know that exercise is an important way to keep body and mind healthy. The results from this small study suggest that combining physical and mental exercise through exergaming could have even more beneficial effects on cognition in older adults than normal exercise alone. Larger and more detailed studies will be needed to get to the bottom of exactly what aspect of exergaming could be giving the benefit, but the early results are very interesting.

“Although it may be unrealistic to expect people to invest in exergaming technology, the findings show that both mental and physical exercise are important in keeping our minds active in old age. With 820,000 people in the UK already living with dementia, and an increasingly ageing population, it is important that we invest in research into preventative strategies that could help to maintain our cognition for that little bit longer.”

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