What is Dopamine? - Definition & Function

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  • 0:01 What Is Dopamine?
  • 0:35 Functions of Dopamine
  • 1:11 Sensation-Seeking Behaviors
  • 2:12 Parkinson's Disease
  • 2:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Harrison Howe
Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, learn what dopamine is and how to identify its effects on the body. Afterward, take a quiz to determine your understanding of the function of this amazing chemical.

What Is Dopamine?

When studying the biological basis of behavior, it is important to understand the effect and properties of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical responsible for sending messages between the brain and different nerve cells of the body. Over the past 60 years, dopamine has been studied extensively and has been written about in over 110,000 research articles, mainly identifying its relationship with Parkinson's disease, drug addiction and mood disorders. At the same time, it has been at the forefront of controversy within the psychological and neuroscience fields.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, responsible for sending messages between the brain and different nerve cells of the body.

Functions of Dopamine

Dopamine is produced in three different areas of the brain: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), substantia nigra pars compacta and hypothalamus. These three areas of the brain affect different bodily functions, such as movement, memory, sleep, mood, pleasurable reward, behavior and cognition.

It's also interesting to see how important dopamine is in our everyday lives. If you are feeling nauseous or sick, it could be because your dopamine levels are low. Dopamine is known to help control nausea and vomiting due to interactions with other chemicals being released into our body.

Sensation-Seeking Behaviors

Dopamine has been identified as the body's reward activator, controlling the pleasure center of our brain while encouraging us to engage in thrill-seeking activities. Let's look at an example of someone that has high levels of dopamine in their chemical makeup. People in this category are believed to gravitate towards taking risks, such as skydiving and bungee jumping.

People with low levels of dopamine in their body have been hypothesized to be more prone to addictive behaviors. It has been observed that somebody with lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are more likely to use and abuse drugs or consume too much food. These unhealthy behaviors release dopamine into the body, thus contributing to a cycle of addiction.

Low levels of dopamine have been linked to increased susceptibility to alcoholism and drug addiction.

The topic of dopamine and addiction poses the question: What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do low levels of dopamine contribute to addiction, or does chronic drug use lead to low levels of dopamine? This is a question that scientists are exploring as research continues.

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Additional Activities

Dopamine Diseases

In this lesson extension, students will be using academic sources to either write a paper or create a presentation about diseases that affect dopamine levels in the body. Students should use only academic sources for this activity, such as peer-reviewed journals from Google Scholar, news articles, information from universities, encyclopedias, or other sources. Students should also cite their sources in their paper or presentation. For example, students could choose to research Parkinson's disease, opiate addiction, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD.


In this activity, you'll be researching a disease that is caused by dysregulation of dopamine signaling in the body. Now that you understand the basics of dopamine, it's time to dive deeper into how it regulates our bodies. Start by researching different diseases that are caused by problems with dopamine signaling. Then, you should research the causes, symptoms, and treatment for the disease you choose. Your research should be compiled into a presentation for a small audience or an academic paper with at least five paragraphs. Be sure to use academic sources, such as information from scientists, peer-reviewed journals, universities, or news outlets. Check out the criteria for success below before you get started to understand the requirements for either product.

Criteria For Success

  • Research is from academic sources
  • Research focuses on one disease caused by problems with dopamine signaling
  • At least three different academic sources are used
  • Paper is at least 1,000 words and includes five paragraphs
  • Presentation is at least 10 minutes long and includes slides that help communicate information to the audience

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