In Reward of Dopamine: An Endocannabinoid Story

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“In skating over skinny ice, our security is in our velocity.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s unhappy – intellectually dishonest even. For some cause, dopamine at all times will get put within the neurotransmitter field labeled ‘addictions and stimulants’. However this little amine is a lot extra.

When a kitten is born, she comes with an inborn tendency to lick herself for cleansing. However she doesn’t do an excellent job at it, simply nuzzling her paws along with her tongue a bit. The intuition is there, however she wants encouragement from her atmosphere. If separated from her mom, this kitten won’t ever be taught to scrub herself correctly – only a haphazard licking that can go away her endlessly mangy and bedraggled. But when mama cat encourages her and demonstrates the correct licking strategies for good hygiene, it’s the dopamine that allows the training of that lesson.

Dopamine is the mom of studying – and the fun of studying. Present in creatures as historical as jellyfish, hydra, and corals, dopamine possible dates again 500 million years to the emergence of the primary nervous techniques. In each animal studied to this point, dopamine propels motor behaviors and rewards studying. Do you wish to prepare a roundworm to navigate a maze? Give it a shot of dopamine as a prize.

Very important to our motivation and our motor management, dopamine additionally helps with our government operate and permits our lactation and our sexual gratification. When our dopamine equipment goes awry, it results in some horrible maladies, most notably Parkinson’s illness.

Dopamine within the Mind

Given the various recognized neural features of dopamine, it’s noteworthy that dopamine accomplishes a lot from such a small base of command. Out of the 80+ billion neurons within the human mind, solely round 400,000 of them are dopaminergic (dopamine producing). These exist predominantly in a selection throughout 11 mobile clusters operating from the midbrain to the forebrain. However from these clusters, the axons of dopamine neurons challenge everywhere in the mind to provide their wide-ranging results.

Dopamine is the mom of studying – and the fun of studying.

The mind’s most vital supply of dopamine stays the basal ganglia, a middle of motor techniques in addition to motion choice (deciding amongst a number of potential behaviors to execute). Positioned within the midbrain, the basal ganglia may be divided into a number of areas and every space controls varied varieties of habits. Some attain out to the best areas of mind just like the prefrontal cortex to assist with the collection of our actions and a few areas act by way of the particular muscular tissues we use to hold these actions out. Basically, it’s a system of decision-making and the finishing up of actions.

Dopamine units the brink for the quantity of signaling essential to set off a habits. Thus, excessive ranges of dopamine could result in impulsive actions in addition to to elevated motor exercise. Conversely, when dopamine ranges are low, you expertise slowed reactions and sluggishness. In Parkinson’s illness, characterised by low ranges of dopamine, the physique resists following the mind’s instructions and sufferers expertise issue in initiating motion.

When you begin treating Parkinson’s with dopamine-raising medicine, it permits folks to maneuver their our bodies extra simply, however it will probably additionally trigger them to behave erratically, energetically, and to manifest new addictions. The complexity of dopamine’s results and the pathways it makes use of makes tinkering with it fraught with unwanted side effects.

Dopamine Pathways

4 main dopamine pathways exist within the human mind:

Mesolimbic pathway – THE REWARD PATHWAY!

Entails liking one thing, wanting one thing (“incentive salience”), studying to keep away from belongings you don’t like (“aversion-related cognition”), constructive reinforcement and the cognitive rewards of a job nicely performed (“reward-related cognition”).
A constructive and unfavorable suggestions loop that’s typically dysfunctional in ADHD, habit, and schizophrenia.
In case you’re a lab animal with a lesion on this a part of your mind, you’ll spend much less time urgent that little lever for nicotine or trying to find meals.

Mesocortical pathway – EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS

Runs out of your mind’s VTA (ventral tegmental space – a dopaminergic hotspot) as much as the prefrontal cortex (highest space of your mind).
Concerned in cognitive management, motivation, and emotional responses.
Typically dysfunctional in ADHD, habit, and schizophrenia (particularly the unfavorable signs of schizophrenia reminiscent of phrase loss, lowered emotional shows, and the power to provoke or proceed self-directed actions).

Nigrostriatal pathway – PRODUCTION OF MOVEMENT

Orchestrated by the basal ganglia, it regulates the management of voluntary motion.
Influences reward, cognition, and addictive habits.
Degeneration on this space of the mind is among the primary options of Parkinson’s illness. Whereas a deficit of dopaminergic neurons on this space is linked to Parkinson’s, it’s theorized that Tourette’s syndrome is brought on by an excessive amount of excitation by way of the identical pathway.

Tuberoinfundibular pathway – HORMONE SECRETION

Particularly prolactin from the pituitary gland.

And that’s simply the mind (plus we skipped two of the minor pathways). Dopamine circulates continually in our bloodstream. In organs everywhere in the physique, it acts as an area messenger: within the blood vessels (dopamine opens ‘em up), kidneys (makes you urinate extra), the pancreas (drops your insulin manufacturing), the GI tract (slows your gastrointestinal motility), and immune cells (reduces their exercise).

Dopamine additionally features as a chemical messenger in lots of vegetation with bananas containing the best quantities. However consuming a banana or one other dopamine-rich meals supply doesn’t trigger extra dopamine to behave on the mind as a result of dopamine doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Separate swimming pools of dopamine exist on each side of the blood-brain barrier and the vast majority of our physique’s dopamine provide comes from the center.

Dopamine Receptors

Three extra issues to find out about dopamine:

First, dopamine causes two varieties of neuronal firing. There’s the regular frequency of tonic part vs the burst-like firing sample of phasic part, normally directed in direction of some form of objective.

Second, there are 5 recognized dopamine (D) receptors, which fall into two classes: the “D1-like receptors” (D1 & D5) trigger excitation, whereas the “D2-like receptors” (D2, D3, D4) trigger inhibition. Fairly a toolbox.

Lastly, and eventually attending to our beloved cannabinoids, dopamine receptors crew up with CB1 cannabinoid receptors to kind one thing referred to as heteromer complexes. That’s when two completely different receptors on the cell’s membrane hyperlink as much as make a joined complicated that features otherwise from every of them performing alone.

By itself, a D2 receptor inhibits the discharge of extra dopamine. But when that D2 receptor joins to a CB1 receptor, then the activation of that complicated acts way more potently to decrease the discharge of dopamine. How this would possibly play into the usefulness of cannabinoids to deal with addictions is straightforward to think about. And in a mouse mannequin of schizophrenia, therapy with cannabinoids and antipsychotics alter the heteromer complexes of CB1 and D2 receptors.

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) modulates dopamine receptor signaling – however with a posh system comes complicated controls.

Dopamine and the ECS

A fast refresher on the endocannabinoid system. You possess two endocannabinoid receptors. CB1 is the commonest receptor of its sort within the human mind and is discovered throughout all your highest functioning areas (however none of your fundamental features like respiratory, which is why you possibly can’t fatally overdose on hashish). The CB2 receptor is current in each organ and is intimately tied to your immune system. It additionally exists within the mind, however normally at low ranges till there’s some form of drawback. Then its numbers swell to assist facilitate neuroprotection and therapeutic.

The endocannabinoid system regulates the ebb and stream of different neurotransmitters, together with dopamine.

The 2 most well-known endocannabinoids that bind to those receptors are anandamide (the bliss neurotransmitter) and 2-AG. Plus, now we have enzymes (FAAH and MAGL) that regulate the degrees of those endocannabinoids, in addition to transport molecules to assist transfer them across the cell.

Not like most different neurotransmitters, endocannabinoids are lipids – fat. Because of this even small shifts of their ranges may be detected by a cell and used as a fragile management mechanism. The ECS is finest described as your system’s system of homeostasis and of stability. It regulates the ebb and stream of different neurotransmitters, together with dopamine. The cannabinoids and dopamine converge on some key areas together with intercourse, motivation, and habit.


In case you give anandamide or 2-AG to a rat, they copulate extra. After a rat is sexually satiated, they’ve an inhibition towards extra intercourse that lasts as much as a day. The injection of anandamide into the related mind space (the VTA) lowers their sexual inhibition by way of the D2-like receptors. The injection of 2-AG in the identical space accomplishes the identical process but it surely operates by way of the D1-like receptors. So, one endocannabinoid prompts the inhibitor and the opposite inhibits the activator to allow the identical objective: extra sexual motivation.

In fact, as typically occurs with the ECS, a gender distinction exists as nicely. In accordance with a 2020 evaluate by researchers on the Saint Louis College Faculty of Medication, the activation of the CB1 receptor can impair erections in males, whereas hashish tends to extend sexual want and performance in females. For THC to extend sexual habits in feminine rats, they should possess each progesterone and dopamine receptors.


In accordance with Maslow, you might want to eat, you want social connection, you want self-respect. Whenever you full a process like consuming meals or serving to a buddy, you get a reward of dopamine, slightly neurochemical deal with to encourage you to maintain coming again.

The endocannabinoid system modulates dopamine-driven constructive reinforcement. Block the CB1 receptor and dopamine ranges drop together with the reward-seeking habits. For the alternative of rewards – unfavorable stimuli – motivational studying is simply as crucial. In mice getting jolted by electrical foot shocks in sure areas of their cage, the mesolimbic reward pathway provides a shot of dopamine to show them the avoidance of triggering that shock. They be taught the worry reminiscence.

Activating the CB1 receptor helped mice overlook their worry reminiscence and extra shortly return to baseline, a touch of why so many individuals with PTSD flip to hashish. Anandamide causes this identical forgetting by way of the amygdala – the mind’s worry heart – and 2-AG does so by way of the discharge of extra dopamine within the mesolimbic reward pathway. One of many overarching functions of the endocannabinoid system is forgetting. Because of this when you may not bear in mind all the main points of the film you watched stoned, additionally, you will extra readily overlook, or cease reacting to, your trauma.

Nonetheless, it’s not often easy when utilizing a polyphonic plant like hashish. In a single scientific examine, if the individuals have the selection to do a more durable process for extra reward, giving them THC beforehand makes them much less possible to decide on the more durable process. Nonetheless, add CBD as nicely and it eliminates this “transient amotivational impact” of THC. You see the identical factor in mice: growing their ranges of endocannabinoids facilitates their goal-seeking habits. Life lesson: Take CBD to offset these slight negatives of your THC-rich hashish.


Habit may be seen as a hijacking of the motivational system. However the line may be skinny between behaviors to guard your self and those who go too far and actively hurt your life. Because the hurt reductionist Lisa Raville says, smoking meth so you possibly can keep awake all evening as a result of laying down means freezing to loss of life is a clever adaptive habits. However being unable to cease your use after which not sleeping for a number of days harms your well being. In both case, these patterns come up out of goal-directed habits pathways.

Procuring, intercourse, overeating, social media, and playing set off that little hit of dopamine.

The stimulant class of medication makes you consider dopamine. Cocaine blocks the reuptake and destruction of dopamine, resulting in increased ranges within the synaptic cleft between neurons the place the mind’s signaling happens; amphetamine redirects transport of dopamine to the synaptic cleft; and different infamous medicine (together with opioids, nicotine, and booze) additionally improve the firing and bursting charges of the dopamine neurons.

And maybe most significantly, our behavioral addictions act by way of dopamine as nicely. Procuring, intercourse, overeating, social media, and playing – every occasion triggers that little hit of dopamine. And whereas hashish could also be solely mildly bodily addicting, like every habits, it may be critically mentally addicting. However isn’t that motion of elevating the pipe to your lips after an extended day of labor and kid-wrangling so soothing? The place can we draw the road between hurt and well being?

The consequences of endocannabinoids and plant cannabinoids on habit are complicated. In rats hooked on cocaine, the CB1 receptor mediates the impulsivity and altered dopamine actions. In case you block the CB1 receptor, you block these adjustments. The elevated motivation triggered by cocaine received’t happen with out CB1 receptors and the 2-AG endocannabinoid.

In a rat mannequin of stimulant habit, CBD lowered the chance of relapse, lowered nervousness ranges, and improved the degrees of endocannabinoid and dopamine equipment within the mind. When taking methamphetamine, CBD blocked the discharge of dopamine and diminished the reward results.

Throughout withdrawal from most addictive substances, the degrees of dopamine launch are usually decrease. The power of endocannabinoids like 2-AG to spice up these ranges could be a part of the rationale that cannabinoids assist with drug withdrawal. For opioids particularly, the shut relationship between our endorphin system and endocannabinoid system permits for cannabinoids like CBD to attenuate the signs of withdrawal by elevating the degrees of anandamide.

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Different Methods and Ailments

Let’s take a more in-depth take a look at how cannabinoids act by way of dopamine pathways within the mind and all through the physique.

Within the eyes:

Within the guts:

In rats, the ECS and the dopamine system are linked to adjustments related to weight problems.
In rats, therapy with an artificial cannabinoid yields insights about how the endocannabinoid system interacts with dopamine, GABA, and ghrelin (an vital hormone associated to meals consumption).

Within the mind:

In neurodegenerative issues:

In a mouse mannequin of tauopathy (mind issues with deposits of tau proteins and neurofibrillary tangles reminiscent of Alzheimer’s illness), phytocannabinoids enhance dopamine transmission in addition to the pathology of tau and amyloid plaques.
In a mouse mannequin of Huntington’s illness, lowering the inhibition of endocannabinoid degradation helps to repair dopamine issues and motivational points.
In a mouse mannequin of Parkinson’s illness, CBD improved cognitive dysfunction and elevated locomotion, decreased neuroinflammation, and guarded the dopamine-producing neurons.
In a rat mannequin of Parkinson’s illness, activating the serotonin receptor 5HT1A (as CBD does) reduces dopamine D1 dyskinesia.
In a mouse mannequin of Parkinson’s, not having sufficient DAGL (the enzyme that creates the endocannabinoid 2-AG) brought on impaired locomotor ability studying and worse illness development, suggesting elevated 2-AG as a therapy.
In a rat mannequin of Parkinson’s illness, a mixture of a CB1 blocker together with the usual therapy of L-DOPA helped to guard dopamine neurons in addition to assuaging motor signs.
In a mouse mannequin of Parkinson’s illness, concentrating on the NAAA enzyme (which breaks down PEA, an endocannabinoid-like neurotransmitter) protects towards dopamine neuron loss and parkinsonian signs.
In neurons, the lack of dopamine harms the power of the CB1 receptors to function (maybe explaining a few of the signs of Parkinson’s illness).
In aged mice, pretreatment with PEA protected the mind from Parkinson’s-like harm by way of a number of mechanisms, in addition to offering safety from a Parkinson’s-like insult.
In rats, a cannabinoid agonist helps with dyskinesia by way of adjustments in dopamine and glutamate.

In psychological well being:

In schizophrenia and psychosis:

With all the above, the therapeutic potential of utilizing cannabinoids to modulate your dopamine system is critical. It stays for scientific analysis to kind out how finest to harness this potential in people given what ought to be apparent: dopamine is a lot greater than only a molecule of habit and velocity.

Copyright, Undertaking CBD. Might not be reprinted with out permission. Lex Pelger writes articles about psychoactives and graphic novels concerning the endocannabinoid system. He publishes a weekly cannabinoid science publication Cannabinoids & the Individuals and conducts 1-on-1 schooling periods on utilizing CBD, PEA, THC & CBDA for critical well being circumstances. 

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