Last week, I shared on dealing with addictions with emphasis on why addictions happen, and how it’s usually for a reason in the first place. Please find it here.
Today, I wish to briefly explain how addiction is developed in the brain to help us understand the process it takes for us to become addicted to drug, alcohol, or in a particular activity we’ve found ourselves helpless about.
While you consume alcohol, you may not be bothered about the chemical reactions the molecules go through in your body. As a chemist myself, every substance’s reactions, or absence of any, once in contact with another is very important. It’s always a wonder how things can be broken into their chemical reactions and used to explain their functions.
Remember we are all matter. And so we all contain molecules and atoms. Drugs not exempted.
Drugs contain molecules that can merge with the brain’s communication system and disrupt the way the nerve cells normally send, receive and process information. Some drugs like cannabis, and heroin have a similar chemical structure to the neurotransmitters naturally produced in the brain. This similarity allows them to bind to the receptors and activate the nerve cells and send extra strong messages.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical message by which neurons communicate with each other. While the neurons are specialized cells that perform two actions: they receive information from other neurons, and also modify their own activity accordingly.
Other drugs like cocaine, and ecstasy cause the neurons to release huge amounts of the neurotransmitters. They can also prevent them from switching off by blocking the process by which they are metabolized. As a result, the signaling system isn’t turned off and the brain is flooded with neurotransmitters.
In essence, drugs influence the process of information by imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers (neurotransmitters), and, by overstimulating the pleasure zone of the brain – the reward pathway.
Drugs of abuse increase the activity of dopamine (a type of neurotransmitter) in the reward pathway of the brain. The reward pathway is the part of the brain that crosses the emotions (limbic) and connects with the decision making (cortex) part of the brain, thus reinforcing a behavior because it produces a pleasurable feeling.
Dopamine is important in the control of mood, emotions, development of new memories, feelings of pleasure and thought patterns. It is usually produced when we are cued by a stimulus paired with a reward. It is that feeling of euphoria we experience when we are engaged in something that is important for our survival like sex, eating, human connections and interaction, or anything that promises us a reward of pleasure after it’s done.
Substances of abuse, or any activity we constantly engage in that had become addictive only work to overstimulate this natural ‘high’ feeling which makes us want to do more in order to have that pleasurable feeling, again and again.
The over stimulation of the reward pathway when we use drugs of abuse or develop an addiction to work, sex, or any activity, sets in motion a reinforcing pattern that teaches us to repeat the behaviour.
Over time, the brain adapts to the surges in the dopamine as the drug use, or particular activity is continued by producing less dopamine on its own – the brain may become dependent on the activity or drug use for the ‘high’ feelings to occur. This is called neuroadaptation, and it is influenced by the way the brain balances by constantly adapting and changing to function in a way that we can act and feel normal. A phenomenal also known as homeostasis.
What happens is this: when we are using a drug, an alcohol, or involved in an activity we have become too helpless about, we alter the function of the brain to release its own dopamine. We then upset the balance, and as a result, the brain tries to balance by trying to minimize the effect of the drug, and get back to normal.
Repeated administration would cause tolerance to develop over time. If tolerance is developed, the implication to the brain is that we have to keep increasing the dose of the drug, or do more of the activity in order to get that same effect of euphoria we had the first time. This is where addiction is tied.
For drugs, we should note that, if tolerance is developed to one drug, then tolerance will develop to all the drugs in the same drug class. And drug use increases in response to the user’s response to tolerance.
Addiction then is simply the continuous use of any substance of abuse, or an engagement with an activity to get the desired effect, or experiencing symptoms of depression, and may be some physical signs and symptoms that are uncomfortable when you stop using the drug, or the activity concerned; or when the blood levels drop and these symptoms can only be relieved by taking more of the substance, or being engaged more in the particular activity.
Addiction, like I shared last week, is simply the state where we lose control over the urges and associated behaviours. This sense of compulsion may be associated with the dopamine reward pathway.
Although tolerance drops during the periods of abstinence, it can result in some withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, aches, flu-like symptoms, pains, irritability, discomforts, or uneasiness. It is the attempt to nullify these withdrawal symptoms that more of the drug, or the particular activity is engaged in, again.
Withdrawal is as a result of our body trying to counteract the presence of the external substance.
Withdrawal symptoms represent the unopposed consequences of the neuro-adaptation – that balance and normality that was achieved after the regular presence of a drug becomes imbalanced and dysfunctional when the drug, or the particular activity that is leading to the addiction is no longer there. So the signs and symptoms of the withdrawal syndrome are usually the opposite of the effects of the substance of abuse, or the engaged activity.
This is why addiction occurs in the first place, because you want to nullify these unfavourable feelings you experience in the absence of the drug used, or the activity engaged, by taking more of the drug, or being involved more in the activity.
Unfortunately, since tolerance had developed, one would need to do more than what one had done initially before the brain’s tolerance to the activity or drug used. And so more and more drug is either taken the next time, or more time is spent in the particular activity in order to achieve the initial feelings of euphoria gained at the beginning. At this stage, the brain has become quite dependent on these external stimuluses to create the feelings of being ‘high.’
And the cycle continues.
I believe if we know how like most things, addiction doesn’t just happen, we can in some ways take charge of our too much dependence on an external stimuli for what the brain can do for us itself. We can then look inwards to find those things that bring us to a natural high, and create a balance.
To your successfully evolving life.