Addiction is not as simple as some people would like to believe. The science tells us that it’s more than a choice to use. Addictive behaviors are actively stored in the brain as memories thanks to dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter (see below) responsible for controlling the pleasure centers in the brain, and when we use drugs, the reward and pleasure centers receive a sudden rush of dopamine. This triggers the brain to imprint that moment into memory so that it is more easily replicated.
All abused substances – to include caffeine, nicotine, and sugar – cause this flood of dopamine. The potential for addiction is directly tied to how much dopamine is released and how quickly.
As time goes on, the brain adapts to the constant input of active substance use, and enjoying the drug becomes indistinguishable from wanting it. This leads to increased use, which itself leads to a need to use more to achieve the same results because that constant barrage of dopamine causes something else to happen. When the pleasure centers are repeatedly cranked up to 11, the brain decides it doesn’t need as many pleasure receptors, and fewer receptors mean you need more input (drugs) to fire the receptors that still exist. This is what’s known as tolerance.
At this point in active addiction, the addictive behavior isn’t about pleasure anymore, it’s about maintenance. It’s not about getting high, it’s about feeling something. What’s more, it’s not even a conscience decision – it’s literally our brain compelling us to recreate the situation that gave us so much pleasure before.
Between 40 and 60% of people will relapse at least once, not because they’re weak. The word ‘trigger’ is common in recovery, but it’s good to realize that the triggers that can cause relapse are deeply-embedded memories. We have to learn to cope with and manage these memory triggers so that when they appear, they don’t cause relapse.
The chemical messengers of the brain, neurotransmitters are what transfers messages in the brain, between neurons and between neurons and muscles. There are dozens of different neurotransmitters, but we focus on just a few that are specifically impacted by addiction.
- nervous system
- cognitive function
- damage associated with Acetylcholine is associated with Alzheimer
- reward and pleasure
- motor control
Glutamate and GABA
Glutamate is instigator. It’s the primary and most plentiful of the excitatory neurotransmittters, responsible for increasing the likelihood that the neurons it connects will fire, or act.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is actually made by glutamate. It is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, essentially doing the exact opposite of glutamate but inhibiting the potential for its neurons to fire. Benzodiazepines (‘Benzos’) and sleeping medications such as Ambien® work by increasing the GABA activity in the brain.
- moderates anxiety
- moderates depression
- improves focus
- increases human growth hormone (HGH)
- moderates sleep
- body temperature
- sleep cycle
- blood pressure
- heart rate
- liver function
The process that creates new neurons in the brain, neurogenesis occurs at the embryonic stage in human development. It also continues throughout our lives in some parts of the brain.
- Declines with age
- Exercise increases neurogenesis
- Depression decreases neurogenesis