An estimated 1 in 10 Americans are addicted to some form of drug or alcohol, according to statistics from Harvard Health Publications. It’s easy to assume that a user makes a choice to use an addictive substance. While this may be initially true, a closer look at the science behind addiction blurs the line between choice and compulsion.
The Science of Pleasure
Addiction begins in the brain, more specifically with how it communicates with the rest of the body. Feelings of pleasure originate from the cerebral cortex, more specifically with a cluster of nerve cells called the nucleus accumbens. It’s here where a powerful neurotransmitter called dopamine is released, resulting in the pleasurable “high” feeling associated with substance use. Once this release is triggered, another part of the mind called the hippocampus creates a memory of how intense the pleasure was and how it occurred. Another area called the amygdala develops a conditioned response in order to increase the likelihood of this pleasure occurring again. These reactions make substance abuse more complex, as they not only deal with the pleasure center of the mind, but also the areas of memory and learning.
Creating an Addict
There is a direct correlation between how much dopamine is released in the brain and the potency of a substance used. How the substance is administered also impacts these levels. For example, injecting heroin directly into the bloodstream will create a faster and more intense high than smoking it. As dopamine levels increase, the nucleus accumbens can be overloaded. These high levels cause a greater interaction with glutamate, a neurotransmitter associated with learning and human survival, which in turn activates the prefrontal cortex of the mind. This activation moves the use of drugs from the “like” column to the “need” column.
Over time, the mind gets used to higher dopamine levels and creates a new standard of normal. This change has a negative impact on a drug user since not only does it take more of a drug to feel the same high, but when not enough dopamine is released to reach this new normal, withdrawal symptoms and cravings develop. Tolerance levels keep increasing over time, leading users to continually chase the feeling of their first high.
As withdrawal symptoms increase in severity, an increase in tolerance quickly gives way to compulsive using. No longer is abstaining from drugs or alcohol an easy choice, as the user is now fighting the conditioned responses in the mind mixed with sometimes severe physical and emotional side effects ranging from mild nausea to life threatening effects on the central nervous system. These side effects vary, but make treatment and recovery increasingly difficult depending on the substance and how long it’s been used.
The impact of addiction on the brain makes recovery difficult on your own. If you or a loved one is suffering from the impact of substance abuse, contact a treatment center today to start the process of retraining the mind onto a drug-free path.
Harvard Health Publications: http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain.htm