How Dopamine Works

Is Dopamine Connected With Risk-Taking?

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Just as dopamine plays a role in drug addiction, it also can help wire a person’s brain to engage in other sorts of risky behavior, such as gambling, dangerous sports and promiscuous sex. Adam Gault/Getty Images

Just as dopamine plays a role in drug addiction, it also can help wire a person's brain to engage in other sorts of risky behavior, such as gambling, dangerous sports and promiscuous sex. And some people appear to be naturally wired to take those sorts of chances.

The reason is that dopamine-producing neurons have structures called autoreceptors, which help to limit dopamine release when those cells are stimulated. In a study published in 2008, Vanderbilt University researcher David Zald and colleagues found that people who have a high tolerance for taking risks tend to have fewer of these autoreceptors, while people who shy away from anything that might seem dangerous tend to have more. That means that risk-takers tend to have larger amounts of dopamine released in their brains.

"The fewer available dopamine autoreceptors an individual has, the less they are able to regulate how much dopamine is released when these cells are engaged," Zald explained in a 2008 Vanderbilt press release. "Because of this, novelty and other potentially rewarding experiences that normally induce dopamine release will produce greater dopamine release in these individuals."

And having high levels of dopamine can stimulate risk-taking behavior. A study published by University College London researchers in 2015 found that subjects whose dopamine level was boosted with medication more often chose risky options that involved potential gains in experiments, though the same effect wasn't seen when the risky options involved potential losses. The researchers noted that their work identified an influence upon decision making and emotion that was distinct from dopamine's established role in training the reward system [source: Rutledge, Skandali, Dayan and Dolan].

Author's Note: How Dopamine Works

Dopamine was an intriguing subject for me to research, because it's become a buzzword in popular culture. I think it's a prime example of how we can latch onto a scientific concept and use it to confirm our own bias, without really understanding it in the first place.

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