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Advances in Health and Medicine

Brain Chemical May Be Root of Addiction


If the brain’s pleasure center were an engine, dopamine would be its gas. Scientists suspected the chemical messenger might be the root of addiction. Pitt is hot on its trail.

Pitt neurobiology chair Susan Amara helped reveal how cocaine provides such a rush—at the molecular level via dopamine. Amara’s research focuses on how, at the very smallest level, the brain responds to antidepressant medications and to commonly abused drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines.

Measuring dopamine levels allows neurobiology professor Gonzalo Torres to study its regulation, which affects neurodegenerative diseases as well as addiction. In 2008, he won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Psychiatry professor Charles Bradberry wants to head addiction off at the pass. His work focuses on the cortex, the neural area where cognition and decision-making occur. In his tests, cognitive neural deficits remained long after drug use, leading him to believe addiction is as much about making bad decisions as seeking pleasure.