Image Courtesy of Steve Ryan
Since we posted this blog 10 years ago, science has evolved about the role of dopamine. See the updated post.
Imagine this: You're playing basketball; it's the last quarter. In fact, you only have 30 seconds to make the winning shot. You shoot, it soars through the air, you hear the buzzer go off...and then you see the swoosh.
You just won the game for your team. How do you feel?
The answer to that question involves a chemical in your brain, called dopamine—our word of the day. Dopamine delivers important messages between neurons (brain cells). That's why it's called a "neurotransmitter." Dopamine is an especially important neurotransmitter, because it helps to control movement, motivation, emotions, and sensations like pleasure.
Back to the basketball game. After you made that winning basket, dopamine sent "messages" to your neurons to help you feel happy, pumped, and overjoyed that you made that winning shot. Dopamine would also be working away in your teammates' brains as they ran out onto the court to celebrate, and in the brains of the cheering fans jumping up and down in the stands.
But it doesn't stop there. Dopamine is at work all the time, delivering messages to neurons and motivating you to participate in the more basic activities of life, like eating foods you like or spending time with family and friends. How dopamine works in the brain is especially important in teens since teens' brains are still developing. When dopamine levels are affected by drugs like cocaine, it can affect the brain's "wiring," causing important messages to get lost in translation. Messing with dopamine can affect your motivation to go to prom or your ability to make that winning basketball shot—even your ability to feel happiness. And that's why drugs might cost you more than just the basketball game.
For more in-depth resources and other brainy words, check out NIDA's interactive glossary that fuels my "Words of the Day."