Image of the Week: Dopamine
It appears like a psychedelic landscape – sharp ridges and dark valleys – softened by a sprawl of colour. There’s something remarkably mountainous about the scene, but the flow of pink, blue green and orange may prompt the question; what actually is it?
Despite appearing other-worldly, this is an image of a substance that occurs naturally within all of us. This micrograph, created by Spike Walker, depicts dopamine crystals illuminated by polarised light. The orientation of each crystal within the structure determines how they refract light. As a result, the wavelength of the reflected light varies, creating this spectral wonder captured under a microscope.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that mediates a variety of brain processes. Its release, in the parts of the brain known as the limbic system, is associated with pleasurable activities, such as eating or having sex. Some recreational drugs such as MDMA (otherwise known as ecstasy) exploit this, flooding the limbic system with dopamine to create the feeling of euphoria (though studies indicate the drug can also damage neurons).
It’s not all about pleasure when it comes to talking about dopamine. Loss of dopamine-secreting nerve cells causes movement problems in people with Parkinson’s disease. Unfortunately in most cases, we don’t know the cause of this cell death, which is why preventing Parkinson’s has proved so difficult. Knowledge of the role that dopamine plays in Parkinson’s disease has enabled the development of dopamine agonist drugs, which act like dopamine to stimulate your nerve cells, and are used to control the symptoms.
Image Credit: Spike Walker, Wellcome Images
Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. Over 100,000 high resolution images from our historical collections are now free to use under the Creative Commons-Attribution only (CC-BY) licence.