Alcohol and Dopamine

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Because alcohol is a small molecule it interacts with many neurotransmitter systems in the brain; this makes the action of alcohol in the brain very different from and much more complex than large molecules such as opiates, THC, or amphetamine which simulate a specific neurotransmitter and interact with a specific neurotransmitter system. Some of the better researched neurotransmitter systems with which alcohol interacts are the following:
 GABA: Alcohol affects the GABA system in a manner similar to valium leading to relaxation and drowsiness
 Endorphins: Alcohol affects the endorphin system in a manner similar to opiates, acting as a pain-killer and giving an endorphin “high”
 Glutamate: It is alcohol’s effects on the glutamate system which lead to staggering, slurred speech, and memory blackouts
 Dopamine: All drugs which lead to dependence appear to affect the dopamine system.
Stimulants like amphetamine and cocaine affect dopamine directly whereas other drugs appear to affect it indirectly.
 Norepinephrine: Also known as noradrenalin. Alcohol causes a release of norepinephrine
in the brain which is one reason why alcohol acts as stimulant and not just as a depressant.
 Adrenaline: Alcohol causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline–this is another
reason why alcohol has stimulant properties. The adrenaline is carried to the brain via the bloodstream.
Alcohol does not lead to an increase of dopamine throughout the brain; it only causes an increase in dopamine in the area of the reward pathway.  This reward pathway is comprised primarily of the nucleus accumbens, the VTA (ventral tegmental area), and a part of the prefrontal cortex.

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