Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a huge variety of roles in how your body functions. Increases in dopamine are associated with reinforcing abilities of “rewards” such as food, drugs, sexual activity, and so on.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a significant role in modulating dopamine synthesis, and cannabinoids from cannabis products can interfere with that modulation — especially with chronic cannabis consumption.
In this post, we’ll explain the connection between dopamine and the ECS, break down the current research regarding whether marijuana increases dopamine, and explore some of the potential for using the dopamine/ECS relationship for treating substance abuse disorders.
Scientists have long considered the body’s endogenous dopamine and opioid systems to be the most important in relation to how the brain processes rewards, with the endocannabinoid system’s role in the same emerging around the turn of the 21st century, a widely cited 2008 literature review published in the British Journal of Psychopharmacology explains.
The same review article notes the presence of CB1 receptors — one of the two main types of receptors in the endocannabinoid system — throughout areas of the brain associated with reward processing.
CB1 receptors are also the location where tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabinoid credited with producing the euphoric marijuana “high,” binds to the endocannabinoid system.
“One long-standing line of evidence for the role for CB1 receptors in brain reward processes is that CB1 receptor agonists, such as the active ingredient in cannabis, THC, have rewarding effects in humans and animals,” related to the synthesis of dopamine, the review’s authors state.
How exactly is dopamine released? A more contemporary review article, published in 2021, explains that the compound is released spontaneously by dopamine neurons in “spikes, which are slow and pacemaker-like.” However, when the brain is presented with “motivationally salient stimuli” such as food or drugs, the same neurons also begin to fire rapidly, creating temporary increases in overall dopamine levels.
How marijuana affects dopamine will differ based on the type of cannabinoids in your cannabis product, your unique endocannabinoid system, and your personal choices, such as how frequently you consume cannabis.
So far, the impacts of specific dose sizes and frequency remain relatively unexplored, though studies have shown that individuals who started consuming cannabis during their adolescence are more likely to have impaired dopamine function.
THC has consistently been found to have the greatest impact on dopamine relative to other cannabinoids. As one frequently cited 2016 literature review states, “the available evidence indicates that THC exposure produces complex, diverse, and potentially long-term effects on the dopamine system including increased nerve firing and dopamine release in response to acute THC and dopaminergic blunting associated with long-term use.”
“THC disrupts finely-tuned endocannabinoid retrograde signaling systems due to the temporal and neuronal specificity of endocannabinoids over THC,” the review’s authors add.
The authors of a 2022 review article exploring the relationship between cannabinoids and cannabis use disorder explain that the dopamine increase associated with acute THC exposure is similar to the dopamine increase you’d experience with any drug that has abuse potential.
They add that “overall, studies of cannabis and the dopamine system in humans indicate that acute drug-induced increases in DA are smaller than those produced by other drugs of abuse.”
A 2023 study examining chronic THC exposure in relation to learning and motivation in an animal sheds some light on what the impact of long-term THC exposure on dopamine might look like in practice.
The experiment behind the study involved exposing adult and adolescent rats to a 2-week regimen of THC injections that was designed to reflect “human-relevant levels of drug exposure.”
The study’s authors report that their findings support the current consensus that chronic THC exposure can cause adaptations “in the brain’s motivational hardware, particularly within the mesolimbic dopamine system.”
Interestingly, the authors also report that, in line with current understandings, the adaptations prompted by chronic THC exposure “can lead to a long-term uptick in the desire to pursue rewards.”
While that might sound like good news for chronic cannabis users, the matter is a little bit more complicated. The increased willingness to pursue rewards observed in the study is expected, in the context of drugs with abuse potential, to be limited to the pursuit of the drug in question rather than non-drug rewards.
Still, the study’s authors note that, in previous animal models studying chronic exposure to other drugs like cocaine, amphetamine, and morphine, the exposed rats were more willing to exert effort for food rewards, complicating the understanding of drug exposure on dopamine, motivation, and addiction.
“Preclinical researchers generally agree that dopamine has a significant role in the development of addiction,” the authors of a 2023 literature review write, adding the caveat that “the specific role of dopamine in addictive behaviors is far from apparent.”
Researchers are similarly uncertain about the specifics of how non-THC cannabinoids affect dopamine and addiction.
As one 2021 literature review exploring how cannabidiol (CBD), the main non-intoxicating cannabinoid, might have potential for treating addiction issues states: “Little is known about the effects of CBD on the mesolimbic system.” The mesolimbic system is the pathway through which dopamine is distributed through the brain.
Still, CBD’s known potential for treating symptoms of disorders caused at least in part by dopamine dysregulation, such as psychosis and schizophrenia, has driven further research on the matter, the authors report.
The few studies referenced in the review found that:
According to the review’s authors, this evidence “suggests that CBD may functionally regulate the activity of the mesolimbic DA system and counteract the effects of dysregulated dopaminergic transmission induced by drugs such as amphetamine, cocaine, alcohol, or cannabis.”
Another literature review, published the following year, came to a similar conclusion and called for additional research to confirm the findings of the studies that have been conducted so far. They also add that “[CBD’s] efficacy depends upon a wide range of factors such as the sequence of injection, administration route, and dosage/dose ratio.”
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