, Volume 35, Issue 6, pp 851-867
Date: 12 Dec 2009

Heterogeneity of Reward Mechanisms

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Abstract

The finding that many drugs that have abuse potential and other natural stimuli such as food or sexual activity cause similar chemical changes in the brain, an increase in extracellular dopamine (DA) in the shell of the nucleus accumbens (NAccS), indicated some time ago that the reward mechanism is at least very similar for all stimuli and that the mechanism is relatively simple. The presently available information shows that the mechanisms involved are more complex and have multiple elements. Multiple brain regions, multiple receptors, multiple distinct neurons, multiple transmitters, multiple transporters, circuits, peptides, proteins, metabolism of transmitters, and phosphorylation, all participate in reward mechanisms. The system is variable, is changed during development, is sex-dependent, and is influenced by genetic differences. Not all of the elements participate in the reward of all stimuli. Different set of mechanisms are involved in the reward of different drugs of abuse, yet different mechanisms in the reward of natural stimuli such as food or sexual activity; thus there are different systems that distinguish different stimuli. Separate functions of the reward system such as anticipation, evaluation, consummation and identification; all contain function-specific elements. The level of the stimulus also influences the participation of the elements of the reward system, there are possible reactions to even below threshold stimuli, and excessive stimuli can change reward to aversion involving parts of the system. Learning and memory of past reward is an important integral element of reward and addictive behavior. Many of the reward elements are altered by repeated or chronic stimuli, and chronic exposure to one drug is likely to alter the response to another stimulus. To evaluate and identify the reward stimulus thus requires heterogeneity of the reward components in the brain.

This overview is in honor of the 80th birthday of Professor Armen Galoyan, a still active, major pioneer of neuroscience and neuroimmunology, and a great friend.