University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Spring 2007

One Latte with Dopamine Blocker, Please

Study could lead to new treatment options for people with addictions

If you think ordering coffee is complicated enough already – quad Grande half-caf lactose-free skim no-foam latte, anyone? – just wait until the barista asks whether you want dopamine receptor blockers, too.

Ryan Ting-A-Kee, a neuroscience PhD candidate at the Institute of Medical Science at U of T, has recently found that mice can be made to enjoy caffeine more when their brain chemistry is manipulated. “Normally the animals don’t like the large doses of caffeine that we’re giving them,” says Ting-A-Kee. “But if you give them a dopamine blocker, all of a sudden they like it.”

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with producing rewarding feelings in the brain, “but there is evidence that dopamine is doing a lot of other things,” says Ting-A-Kee. “This shows that in certain circumstances it can have the reverse effect.” Block the dopamine, and the caffeine suddenly feels a whole lot better.

While Ting-A-Kee teases that he’s secretly being funded by Starbucks, the actual applications of his research may lie in addiction treatment.“There may be a parallel,” he says. “Other drugs, particularly nicotine, may work in a manner similar to caffeine.” Better understanding of brain chemistry could open up new treatment options for people hooked on highly addictive substances.

All the same, don’t be too surprised some morning to find yourself ordering a large cappuccino – and hold the dopamine.

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