Our reward system and dopamine: A life-sustaining trap

by | Dec 5, 2023

reward system and dopamine

The brain’s design is difficult to wrap one’s head around. Just one example is our dopamine-driven reward system. Without it, we don’t exist. With it, we could get caught in a dangerous trap. It’s fascinating and important, so let’s dig in…

’This disconnection is a set-up for addiction as we search for other sources of dopamine. The ‘other sources’ look shockingly similar to the list of common cultural complaints – overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, consumerism, chronic hooking up.’

It’s pretty common knowledge that our reward system is a huge factor in substance use disorders.

But what escapes the headlines is its role in any impulse control situation: overeating, problem gambling, excessive internet use, hypersexual behavior, explosive rage, and more.

And, of course, it can be a player in the generation of mood and anxiety misery.

I find the reward system fascinating and relevant to what we do here on Chipur. And I think you will too.

In fact, we’ll make a series out of it, coming back in short order with a detailed piece on dopamine.

Let’s get busy…

What is the reward system?

The reward system is a gathering of brain structures and neural pathways responsible for major cognitive functions, such as behavior learning through association (classical conditioning), behavior learning through reward and punishment (operant conditioning), motivation and craving for a reward, and positive emotions – especially those involved with pleasure.

By design, the reward system is about survival behaviors – reproduction, eating, socializing, physical defense.


reward system

Anatomy of the reward system

There are numerous pieces of anatomy that make the reward system roll. You can see some of them in the image.

However, the heavy hitters are the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NA). Interesting: the nucleus accumbens is a target for deep brain stimulation treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Now, the power line of our reward system is the medial forebrain bundle (MFB). It’s the MFB, a neural pathway, that transmits signals from the VTA to the NA. It isn’t identified in the image, but you can see the green line connecting the two.

Makes sense that the MFB is frequently referred to as the “hedonic highway.” Using drugs of abuse (DOA) to illustrate the point, when the MFB is blocked, the longing for DOA is greatly reduced or downright ceases.

The signals that pass through the MFB are supported by dopaminergic (dopamine releasing) neurons. Generally speaking, drugs that are not abused have no effect on dopaminergic concentrations.


Trying to cover everything about the reward system’s physiology would exhaust both of us. So we’re going to fast-forward to the appearance of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

If you use a benzodiazepine, such as alprazolam (Xanax) or clonazepam (Klonopin), you’re benefiting from their impact upon GABA-A receptors.

Again, to illustrate a point, DOA act upon GABA receptors, which leads to neurons being inhibited from firing. And that results in the release of less GABA onto dopaminergic neurons.

When that happens, a disinhibition of dopaminergic neurons occurs, which makes them fire more regularly – releasing more dopamine into our reward system.

And wouldn’t you know it, higher dopamine concentrations result in feelings of well-being, even euphoria. So the buzz is on.


Interestingly enough, it’s through GABAs interaction with limbic system structures – the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, thalamus, cingulate gyrus, etc. – that we experience anxiety reduction, sedation, and behavioral disinhibition.

So, in fact, the components of the brain that generate anxiety-reducing effects are, let’s say, an extension of the reward system.

Bottom-line: outside “substances” (DOA, food, internet porn, social media, and more) gain entry into our bodies and use our reward system to fulfill their mission.

And it quickly becomes a reciprocating relationship.

Our reward system ends up needing the substance, just as the substance needs our reward system. And as it so often goes, the substance commandeers the reward system – and addiction is on.

Input from Dr. Amy Banks

In prep for this piece I came upon a great article on Psychology Today’s site by Dr. Amy Banks, co-author of Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships. Let’s add Dr. Banks’ input to our discussion…

Banks opens by observing that dopamine is trending as the most popular neurotransmitter. Why? It’s responsible for…

  • The craving many of us experience when smelling the morning coffee brewing
  • The elation we deeply feel when we fall in love
  • The thrill of a shopping spree
  • The desire for that second or third glass of wine at dinner

Banks asks, “So what’s the harm? It’s a natural, biologically based chemical that provides energy and motivation.

Operant conditioning

She answers the question by recalling B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning work in the 1950s.

Scientists put electrodes into the limbic system (emotional center) of rat’s brains and gave them a small zap when the rat entered a specific corner of a box.

Everyone thought if the shock was unpleasant enough it would cause the rat to keep away from the corner. Hmmm, but something unexpected occurred. When the electrode was placed in the nucleus accumbens, instead of avoiding the corner, the rats went back to get the shock time and again – as in 700 times in an hour. They even chose a shock over food.

Banks points out the behavior was something the rats absolutely “needed” to do. The takeaway, according to Banks…

The increase in motivation and energy that dopamine provides can be a good thing, but when your brain gets wired to compulsive behaviors that stimulate the dopamine reward pathway (addictions) then your life can be as out of control as the poor rat in Skinner’s Box.

Dr. Banks believes dopamine and the reward system aren’t the problems. No, the problem is how we stimulate the dopamine pathway.

She summarizes…

This disconnection is a set-up for addiction as we search for other sources of dopamine. The ‘other sources’ look shockingly similar to the list of common cultural complaints – overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, consumerism, chronic hooking up.

Not only do these addictive, destructive behaviors get paired to the dopamine reward system but they create a feedback loop of isolation that pushes people towards more addictions.

Without healthy relationships we each become like the rats in Skinner’s Box – seeking dopamine from all the wrong places. It is time to rewire our brains for the healthy relationships and connections that reward us with positive energy and motivation.

And there you have it.

Run with it

Our reward system and dopamine: absolutely stunning design and mechanics. But as incredible and life-sustaining as they are, we need to be mindful of the trap.

I’ve always relied upon understanding the anatomy and physiology of emotional and mental challenges for healing direction and hope.

If you’re struggling with impulsive behaviors, with or without a mood or anxiety situation, what you just read had to have hit home.

Now run with it.

For tons of info on dopamine, hit part two – Our reward system and dopamine: All about dopamine

Go ahead and check out Dr. Banks’ article, The Dopamine Reward System: Friend or Foe?

Reward system image: Authors: Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.  No changes.

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