The nucleus accumbens is located in the ventral striatum. It is known as the brain’s reward center because it is a major source of pleasurable feelings.
The neurochemical dopamine is released from the nucleus accumbens. Healthy levels of dopamine will help us with motivation and in the pursuit of desires. In the frontal cortex, it will help us work toward our desired goals. It will also help with decision-making. Dopamine will help us feel rewarded in our pursuit of meaning and purpose.
The release of dopamine is especially triggered by things necessary for our survival such as eating, drinking, or sex.
While dopamine is linked with pleasure and motivation, overstimulation of the nucleus accumbens and elevated levels of dopamine lead to craving and addiction.
Addiction is defined by abuse, dependence, and pathological craving.
Addiction can be for substances such as alcohol as well as in behaviors. Behavioral addiction can range from food, pornography, video games, gambling, shopping, or even exercise.
Common to various types of addiction is the hijack of the reward system. Numbing of the reward, tolerance, a large release of dopamine, and a weakened prefrontal cortex inhibitory response are all features of addiction and the hijack of our reward system. When we suffer from addiction, the reward actually becomes less appealing over time. Addicts need a bigger risk and reward to maintain a sense of desire and stimulation. When overstimulated, the nucleus accumbens through a binding protein known as CREB (cAMP response element-binding protein), activates the release of dynorphin. Dynorphin inhibits overstimulation of the nucleus accumbens. What happens with addiction is that over time, the feeling of pleasure decreases just as craving increases, because the brain is naturally trying to limit overstimulation. Neuroscience teaches us that more will in fact become less.
Some of the most addictive substances, like cocaine or methamphetamine, ramp up the effect of dopamine. The problem is that these systems of ramping up get so out of whack that they need more and more of the drug to produce the desired effect.
To avoid your nucleus accumbens being highjacked by addiction, focus your attention and intention toward acts of love, joy, peace, and kindness. Making the fruit of the Spirit our motivation and desire rewards us neurologically as well as rewards the recipients of our kindness. What greater riches are there than love, joy, and peace?