The Neuroscience of Drug Reward and Addiction (2019)

Physiol Rev. 2019 Oct 1;99(4):2115-2140. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00014.2018.

Volkow ND1, Michaelides M1, Baler R1.

National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.


Drug consumption is driven by a drug’s pharmacological effects, which are experienced as rewarding, and is influenced by genetic, developmental, and psychosocial factors that mediate drug accessibility, norms, and social support systems or lack thereof. The reinforcing effects of drugs mostly depend on dopamine signaling in the nucleus accumbens, and chronic drug exposure triggers glutamatergic-mediated neuroadaptations in dopamine striato-thalamo-cortical (predominantly in prefrontal cortical regions including orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) and limbic pathways (amygdala and hippocampus) that, in vulnerable individuals, can result in addiction. In parallel, changes in the extended amygdala result in negative emotional states that perpetuate drug taking as an attempt to temporarily alleviate them. Counterintuitively, in the addicted person, the actual drug consumption is associated with an attenuated dopamine increase in brain reward regions, which might contribute to drug-taking behavior to compensate for the difference between the magnitude of the expected reward triggered by the conditioning to drug cues and the actual experience of it. Combined, these effects result in an enhanced motivation to “seek the drug” (energized by dopamine increases triggered by drug cues) and an impaired prefrontal top-down self-regulation that favors compulsive drug-taking against the backdrop of negative emotionality and an enhanced interoceptive awareness of “drug hunger.” Treatment interventions intended to reverse these neuroadaptations show promise as therapeutic approaches for addiction.

KEYWORDS:  cannabis; dopamine; glutamate; nucleus accumbens; opioids; substance use disorders

PMID: 31507244

DOI: 10.1152/physrev.00014.2018