Despite the fact that sex is a basic instinct and a near-universal experience, we know remarkably little about it. And so, this week, we’re teaming up with our friends at Futurism, oracles of all things science, technology and medicine, to look at the past, present and future of pleasure from a completely scientific perspective.
For a while now, the neurotransmitter dopamine has been seen as the conductor of good feelings. It’s the subject of love songs, the seductress of biohackers and the ostensible “pleasure chemical.” But as research continues to uncover more about our brain’s reward system, dopamine is beginning to look less like the maestro and more like a member of the band.
In a rodent study published over the summer, postdoctoral scholar Raaj Gowrishankar and his fellow researchers from the Bruchas Lab in Washington highlighted the contribution of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain, to reward reinforcement as well. He tells me that it travels parallel to the same mesolimbic “reward” pathway that dopamine does, suggesting that it’s also involved in the generation of feelings like pleasure, motivation and anticipation.
After previous studies — namely, research into drug abuse and addiction — hinted that dopamine was only the tip of the reward iceberg, Gowrishankar and his colleagues decided to dig deeper, and they came to their conclusions about GABA by monitoring the brain activity of mice while they were eating pellets and poking their noses against a small light to turn it on (which is apparently quite stimulating for a rodent). While that may seem insignificant, he says mouse brains are “remarkably similar to ours,” which is why they’re often the subject of scientific studies.
This isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking discovery — again, Gowrishankar says his team isn’t the first to suggest that dopamine doesn’t work alone or that GABA plays a large role in our reward system. In fact, while GABA remained mysterious well after its discovery in 1950, studies from over a decade ago suggest that it played at least some role in our pleasure system, if only because they vaguely noticed that the neurotransmitter regulated stress and anxiety.
To be clear, though, our understanding today is that neither dopamine nor GABA directly produce pleasure. Dopamine simply reinforces enjoyable sensations by coupling actions that make you feel good with an appetite to do them again — or better put, it increases your expectations. While Gowrishankar says we still need more research to understand how GABA functions within our reward system, as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it suppresses areas of the brain associated with stress and negative emotions. Therefore, GABA could in theory elicit satisfaction by generating an absence of dissatisfaction.
To that end, reports also show that when GABA activity is reduced in brain regions like the amygdala, which is commonly cited as our emotional response center, we’re more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders. Likewise, benzodiazepines such as Valium work primarily by stimulating the action of GABA, which again implies that it makes us feel better by turning down our negative emotions.
Interestingly, research also shows that GABA has vasodilatory properties, which is why it appears in ED products like ExtenZe, which allege to boost sexual performance. Keep in mind, however, that studies say it’s unclear whether GABA supplements actually increase GABA levels in the body because there’s little evidence that it crosses the blood-brain barrier.
While studies have shown that exercises like running can increase the release of GABA, Gowrishankar says it’s also not entirely clear whether actively pursuing a surge of GABA is worthwhile. For that matter, he’s also skeptical of clickbait-y articles like “10 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally,” if only because our understanding of the reward system is still in its infancy, and we don’t know whether more dopamine automatically means more pleasure.
In fact, on the whole, Gowrishankar says his research only scratches the surface, and that our reward system is undoubtedly more complex than a collaboration of dopamine and GABA. For example, glutamate is the most abundant and major excitatory neurotransmitter in our brain. Oxytocin, another neurotransmitter, appears to amplify all emotional encounters, good and bad. Then there’s the well-known neurotransmitter serotonin, which is something of a mood regulator. What makes matters even more complicated is that many of these “happiness-producing” neurotransmitters do much more than just produce happiness.
Regardless, Gowrishankar hopes that exploring these dark caves of our brain will lead to better models of psychiatric disorders like addiction and depression, which hijack our reward system and thrust us into negative cycles. That way, we can come up with more effective medications than, say, SSRIs, which aren’t based on a comprehensive understanding of what depression does to the brain because we’re still not absolutely sure. Or, on the addiction front, clinical trials show that more GABA means less dopamine, which could help cut cravings for drugs like coke.
But as Gowrishankar emphasizes, it’s a big puzzle, and we only have a few of the pieces. One thing’s for sure, though: Dopamine has more help than we thought.