For vertebrates as we are, the totality of our nervous system is divided into the central and peripheral regions.  The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord, while the peripheral consists of nerves that carry messages into and out of the brain and spinal cord, traveling to and from the internal tissues and periphery of the body. 

A nerve cell or neuron is the fundamental unit of the functioning nervous system.  It is the neuron’s job to detect changes in its environment and then to transmit appropriate messages in order for an action to be taken. Neurons come in many varieties, but they have the same basic structure, consisting of a cell body and two different kinds of extensions. 

The first is the dendrite which receives stimuli from its immediate surroundings, from other neurons or from sensory structures on the skin, muscle or internal organs. Each cell has many dendrites and each dendrite has many branches.  A single long extension called an axon carries the impulse away from the cell body and toward other neurons and their dendrites or directly to muscles and gland cells. 

The junction at which the impulse is transmitted from one nerve cell to another is called the synapse.  It is here that the message passes from one of the branching of an axon to one of the branching of dendrite.  When the impulse reaches a the tiny intervening space, a chemical substance, a neurotransmitter, is released from the axon into the junction. 

There are about 50 different types. The molecules of the neurotransmitter bind to receptor molecules on the dendrite or cell membrane, changing the shape of the receptor and opens up pathways, called channels. The consequent flow of chemical substances through the membrane passes the impulse into the receiving cell. 

No neuron acts alone, it is part of entire circuits interacting with one another, involving as few as two or as many as millions. What we call a nerve impulse is nothing more than a tiny charge of electricity created when certain chemical and physical changes take place in a nerve cell in response to stimulation.  The charge amounts to about 90 millivolts and it speeds along  the axon, when it reaches a synapse, the neurotransmitter is released.

Dopamine

One of the major neurotransmitters acting in the central nervous system is dopamine, and It is involved in the control of locomotion, cognition, affect and neuroendocrine secretion.

Dopamine is referred to as the feel-good neurotransmitter – a chemical that ferryboats information between nerve cells. The brain releases it when we are eating food that we yearn for or at the time that we make love, contributing to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system. This essential neurochemical boosts mood, inspiration, and attention, and helps regulate movement, learning and psychological responses. 

According to Mark Daily’s book, lab experiments have shown that dopamine prompts rats to press a lever for food again and again. This is no different in people, it is the reason we partake in more than one helping of cake. This press-the-lever action definitely applies to addiction, too. People with low levels of dopamine may be more prone to addiction; a person looking for satisfaction via drugs or alcohol or food needs higher and higher levels of dopamine.

How does dopamine make you feel? Dopamine triggers you to want something, to desire, look for, and search for it. It surges your overall level of stimulation and your goal-directed behavior. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels looking for information. Dopamine also creates reward-seeking loops in the sense that people will repeat pleasant conduct, from checking Instagram to taking drugs.

Mythical Status

Among the neurotransmitters in the brain, dopamine has gained an almost mythical status.  Decades of research have established its contribution to several seemingly unrelated brain functions, including learning, motivation and movement, raising the question of how a single neurotransmitter can play so many different roles. 

Understanding dopamine’s diverse functions is challenging, in part because the advanced brains of humans contain different kinds of dopamine neurons, all embedded in highly complex circuits. Studies with fruit flies have found that dopamine neurons can teach animals long term lessons and also provide moment-to-moment reinforcement that encourages the flies to continue with a beneficial action.

Parkinson’s Disease

In this neurodegenerative disorder, the decrease begins with the dopamine-producing cells in the brain where movement is collaborated. As these cells break down, motor function is jeopardized, which includes tremblings, rigidness, bradykinesia or slowed movement, as well as changes in speech and gait.

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to increase somebody's dopamine levels naturally, and basic self-care is the place to begin. A night of fitful sleep, for one, can lower dopamine significantly.

Here are some ideas to boost levels: Eat foods rich in tyrosine including cheese, meats, fish, dairy, soy, seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, among others. Up magnesium consumption with foods such as seeds, nuts, soy, beans, whole grains, among others. Keep away from processed foods, high-fats, sugar, caffeine. Proper sleep hygiene is compulsory, as it fuels dopamine production. Exercise daily. Keep away from tension, use strategies like meditation, visualization, breathing exercises.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.