What is dopamine – and is it to blame for our addictions?

Eric Bowman, University of St Andrews

Most researchers agree that the key difference between human brains and those of other animals is the size and complexity of our cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer of neural tissue. We therefore tend to focus our attention on this area, believing that our unique mental life is due to this masterpiece of evolution.

But we often ignore the bits that are nearly identical between humans and animals, such as the tiny group of brain cells that use the chemical dopamine to communicate with other brain cells.

A rewarding experience

Dopamine is often described as the brain’s “pleasure chemical”, but it is actually involved in a large number physical and mental processes. It is used by a cluster of neurons in the midbrain to transmit messages to other neurons. The neurons are small in number (~0.0006% of the neurons in the human brain)


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