An Introduction to Punishment Pathways in the Brain

Dr Mehmet Yildiz

Purpose of the Article

After providing a brief scientific context to the topic to inform you with publicly available and credible resources, I touch on real-life implications of excessive pleasure adversely affecting the brain to down-regulate the pleasure sensors and circuits in simple language.

Disclaimer: Please note that this post does not include health advice. This article is for information purposes only.

Introduction

Pain and pleasure, or reward and punishment, go hand in hand. They are represented like yin and yang in our biology. As collective wisdom indicates, “too much of a good thing can be a problem.”

While the human tendency is to focus on pleasure, there is also a need for the awareness of the pain and punishment system built in our neurobiology.

In a nutshell, neurons send electrical signals to the brain and nervous system for survival activities. Neurotransmitters control these signals. The system uses an activation and deactivation mechanism. So our pleasure and pain signals are hard-coded, thus strictly regulated.

Scientific Context of Pleasure Regulation

The neurobiology of punishment is highly complex. The research is extensive yet at a nascent stage. However, we gained some insights into the punishment pathways in the brain through various neuroscience studies on dopamine and related neurotransmitters known as pleasure and motivation molecules.

In addition to dopamine circuits, there is scientific evidence implicating "GABA, monoamine neurotransmitter systems, corticostriatal, and amygdala circuits in punishment.”

Punishment refers to adverse consequences caused by our behavior. I am not talking about punishing people for their behavior. It is not about parental, legal, or ethical punishment.

In this report, I focus on the brain’s natural punishment system to balance our neurotransmitters for survival.

This study informs “how maladaptive punishment processes are implicated in addictions, impulse control disorders, psychopathy, anxiety, and depression and argues that a better understanding of the cellular, circuit, and cognitive mechanisms of punishment will make important contributions to next-generation therapeutic approaches.”

As this open access paper points out, “in the clinical literature, sensitivity to punishment is assessed across a variety of disorders, including addiction, depression, psychopathy as well as eating disorders, enabling insights into the etiology, maintenance, and treatment of these conditions.”

This publicly available Ph.D. thesis demonstrated the robustness of punishment on behavior. The research examined the role of BLA, mAcbSh, PFC, VTA, LHb, and dmStr within punishment acquisition using microinfusions of drugs into these regions.

This dissertation has chosen these brain regions as the literature has implicated or hypothesized their involvement in punishment behavior. However, prior studies have not provided much direct evidence for the importance of these regions in punishment.

For example, this paper pointed out that “circuit-specific signaling of ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine neurons drives different aspects of motivated behavior, but the neuromodulatory control of these circuits is unclear.”

However, as mentioned in this paper, within the context of the neural circuit, we know that “VTA is robust dopaminergic projections to forebrain regions and their critical role in regulating reward, motivation, cognition, and aversion.” Interestingly, the VTA is not only made of dopamine cells. “Approximately 30% of cells in the VTA are GABA neurons.”

Real-Life Implications of Excessive Pleasure

From multiple cognitive science studies, I understand that intense reward sensations from hedonistic activities produce fast and sturdy learning responses in the brain.

As pointed out in extensive studies, the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors in the brain to adjust for the increased dopamine in the system.

For example, regular and excessive recreational drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and even medications used for valid reasons play a prominent role in the dopamine system.

Excessive use of these chemicals not only causes downregulation of dopamine but also causes cravings for the pleasure of the reward response. In other words, addictive molecules significantly affect our reward and punishment system.

Furthermore, in addition to addictive molecules, addictive behavior also affects the pleasure and pain system. Commonly mentioned addictive behaviors are porn, gambling, shopping, video games, thrill-seeking, fashion, social media, and even running.

Paradoxically, even though eating, drinking, sex, exercise, playing games, and socializing are natural and essential activities for our survival, they can be problematic at excessive amounts.

The impact and implications of addiction on the brain are well-documented in the body of knowledge. I don’t want to bore you with details but mention three parts of the brain affected by addictions.

Addictions affect the cortex causing issues with thinking, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. The amygdala is mainly involved in the withdrawal effect creating anxiety, irritability, and fear. Addictive behavior, especially hefty drugs, diminishes the sensitivity of the basal ganglia. And the severity of anhedonia is associated with a deficit of activity of the ventral striatum.

My key point in this story is to highlight one of the critical issues of the downregulation of pleasure circuits related to our mental health. Significantly reduced dopamine receptors can result in anhedonia.

Anhedonia is a condition that we lose pleasure in the activities that we used to enjoy immensely before. So, anhedonia looks like a mental health concern associated with severe changes in brain chemistry.

Conclusions and Takeaways

Pain and pleasure exist together in nature. This polarity is also reflected in the brain. We seek pleasure and refrain from pain. However, we need both to maintain equilibrium.

While pleasure is a critical aspect of life for survival and thriving, our brain and the body are not designed to cope with too much pleasure. Instead, the brain is hardcoded to regulate pain and pleasure.

So, pleasure might turn into pain when over-experienced. When the brain senses too much of our good feel hormones, it down-regulates the pleasure circuits. Science and common wisdom show that too much of a good thing can be a problem.

This down-regulation can have real-life implications on the quality of our lives. Apart from addictions causing many structural and functional complications in the brain, we also lose appetite for the most enjoyable things in life.

Thus, anhedonia is a mental health issue and appears to be closely related to brain chemistry. Anhedonia treatment requires qualified healthcare professionals' support as a severe mental health condition.

In my opinion, while occasional euphoria can be desirable for life satisfaction, I prefer to remain mindful to experience a broad spectrum of emotions for a balanced neurochemical profile pointed in neuropharmacological and neuroanatomical studies.

Furthermore, an awareness of pleasure and pain circuits can help us design a functional lifestyle for sustainable mental health. So far in my life, a mindful lifestyle has been one of the most effective ways to achieve this balance.

Thank you for reading my perspectives. I wish you a mindful and joyful life.

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I write about important and valuable life lessons. My goal is to delight my readers. My content aims to inform and engage my readers. I'm a technologist, cognitive scientist, and postdoctoral researcher, with four decades of experience.

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