Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in your brain. It plays a role as a “reward center” and in many body functions, including memory, movement, motivation, mood, attention and more. High or low dopamine levels are associated with diseases including Parkinson’s disease, restless legs syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Dopamine is a type of monoamine neurotransmitter. It’s made in your brain and acts as a chemical messenger, communicating messages between nerve cells in your brain and your brain and the rest of your body.
Dopamine also acts as a hormone. Dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine are the main catecholamines (a label based on having part of the same molecular structure). These hormones are made by your adrenal gland, a small hat-shaped gland located on top of each of your kidneys. Dopamine is also a neurohormone released by the hypothalamus in your brain.
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Dopamine plays a role in many body functions.
As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is involved in:
As a hormone, dopamine is released into your bloodstream. It plays a small role in the “fight-or-flight” syndrome. The fight-or-flight response refers to your body’s response to a perceived or real stressful situation, such as needing to escape danger.
Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone. It gives you a sense of pleasure. It also gives you the motivation to do something when you’re feeling pleasure.
Dopamine is part of your reward system. This system is designed, from an evolutionary standpoint, to reward you when you’re doing the things you need to do to survive — eat, drink, compete to survive and reproduce. As humans, our brains are hard-wired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in our reward system. When you’re doing something pleasurable, your brain releases a large amount of dopamine. You feel good and you seek more of that feeling.
This is why junk food and sugar are so addictive. They trigger the release of a large amount of dopamine into your brain, which gives you the feeling that you’re on top of the world and you want to repeat that experience.
If you have the right balance of dopamine, you feel:
If you have a low dopamine level, you might feel:
You may also have:
If you have a high dopamine level, you might feel:
The negative side of having high levels of dopamine include:
Many diseases are associated with high or low levels of dopamine. There’s still much to be learned. For example, does a high or low level of dopamine cause disease or does disease cause a change in the dopamine level? Can the answer be both? Adding to the confusion is that the function of a single neurotransmitter like dopamine can’t be viewed in isolation of other neurotransmitters or other chemicals in your brain or body. Many interact with each other. There’s a lot going on.
All that being said, there are still diseases in which the dopamine levels are high or low.
Dopamine agonists are drugs that mimic the natural neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine agonists bind to and activate the dopamine receptors on nerve cells in your brain, causing nerve cells to react in the same way as they would to natural dopamine.
Dopamine agonists are used to treat Parkinson’s disease, depression, restless legs syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, low sex drive and hyperprolactinemia.
Examples of these dopamine agonist medications include:
Dopamine antagonists are drugs that bind to and block dopamine receptors (on the receiving nerve cell) in your brain. This means they block or stop dopamine from being received by the next nerve cell. Many antipsychotic drugs are dopamine antagonists.
Dopamine antagonists are used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, nausea and vomiting,
Examples of dopamine antagonist medications include:
Dopamine reuptake inhibitors are drugs that prevent dopamine from re-entering and being reabsorbed by the nerve cell that released it. This makes more dopamine available to more neurons in your brain.
Dopamine reuptake inhibitors are used to treat depression and narcolepsy, and to overcome addictions such as smoking, overeating and binge eating.
Examples of dopamine reuptake inhibitor medications include:
Levodopa is used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Loss of dopamine is responsible for the movement symptoms seen in people with Parkinson’s disease. To help levodopa reach your brain (as opposed to other parts of your body), levodopa is combined with carbidopa. Once it reaches your brain, it’s converted into dopamine.
Recreational drugs interfere with the way nerve cells in your brain send and receive messages. Drugs like marijuana and heroin mimic natural neurotransmitters. Other drugs, like amphetamine and cocaine, cause the release of large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the recycling of these neurotransmitters.
Recreational drugs overstimulate your brain’s “reward center.” Over time, with repeated drug exposure, a certain area of your brain becomes less sensitive and you don’t get the same feeling of pleasure from anything else but the drug. Also, you’ll often need to take larger and larger amounts of drugs to produce the same effect. At the same time, another area of your brain becomes more sensitive to the feelings of withdrawal, such as anxiety and irritability, as the drug effects wear off and you’ll seek drug use for another reason — to get relief from this discomfort. So, addiction is a vicious cycle that develops from multiple mechanisms.
Scientists now think that dopamine’s role isn’t to directly cause euphoria, but serves as a reinforcement for remembering and repeating pleasurable experiences. So, when drugs cause surges in dopamine, it’s teaching your brain to remember the experience. Your brain links your drug use and all of your routines and other cues surrounding the drug event. It’s a reason why you might crave drugs when returning to the location where you once used drugs long after you’ve quit.
You may wish to try remedies that naturally increase dopamine. Further research is needed on the effects of food on neurotransmitters such as dopamine.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter and hormone. It plays a role in many important body functions, including movement, memory and pleasurable reward and motivation. High or low levels of dopamine are associated with several mental health and neurological diseases. Much research remains to be done to determine how dopamine works in relation to health conditions and how it interacts with other neurotransmitters, hormones and other chemicals. If you think you have symptoms of high or low levels of dopamine, see your healthcare provider. They’ll review your symptoms, conduct any needed tests and help determine a proper plan of care if a medical condition is found.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/23/2022.
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