The brain’s reward system

An annotated guide to the areas of the brain involved with reward

The ‘buzz’ experienced with many drugs is rooted in the boost they give to dopamine activity in the brain’s reward system. This reward system – also known as the mesolimbic pathway – begins in the midbrain and extends into the forebrain and frontal lobes. For more on parts of the brain, see our annotated guide to the brain.


  1. Ventral tegmental area – Found in the midbrain, this area produces dopamine and forms part of one of four major dopamine pathways in the brain. Affected by drugs including nicotine, alcohol and opioids (eg heroin).
  2. Nucleus accumbens – A small region in the forebrain with ancient evolutionary origins, which helps regulate survival drives like food and thirst. Affected by drugs including cocaine, amphetamine, cannabinoids (eg cannabis) and opioids (eg heroin).
  3. Prefrontal cortex – Part of the frontal lobe that is involved in many cognitive functions, including memory, language, planning and decision making.

Further reading

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Addiction, Inside the Brain
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development