Natural rewards, neuroplasticity, and non-drug addictions

Neuropharmacology. 2011 Dec;61(7):1109-22. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.03.010. Epub 2011 Apr 1.


There is a high degree of overlap between brain regions involved in processing natural rewards and drugs of abuse. "Non-drug" or "behavioral" addictions have become increasingly documented in the clinic, and pathologies include compulsive activities such as shopping, eating, exercising, sexual behavior, and gambling. Like drug addiction, non-drug addictions manifest in symptoms including craving, impaired control over the behavior, tolerance, withdrawal, and high rates of relapse. These alterations in behavior suggest that plasticity may be occurring in brain regions associated with drug addiction. In this review, I summarize data demonstrating that exposure to non-drug rewards can alter neural plasticity in regions of the brain that are affected by drugs of abuse. Research suggests that there are several similarities between neuroplasticity induced by natural and drug rewards and that, depending on the reward, repeated exposure to natural rewards might induce neuroplasticity that either promotes or counteracts addictive behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology*
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Exercise / psychology
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Food
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Reward*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal