December 16, 2018

The Science of Addiction

The diagram below shows a normal brain scan and that of an addict under four different conditions.  Notice any differences between the normal brains and addicted brains? I will come back to that, but for now lets get into the science of addiction.

Addiction Science 1
Image reference: www.mic.com

It’s 6am and you open a can of beer for breakfast. By 9am you’ve gone through half a dozen cans of larger. No, I’m not addicted to alcohol, it’s just beer. It’s two am and you step out to roll up your next ‘weed’ fix. No I’m not addicted to smoking. I can’t sleep, and it helps me relax plus ‘weed’ is better than cigarette so that’s ok. You get jittery by lunch time because you never got round to drinking that hourly shot of double espresso. Lord help the person who drunk your last can of coke. Your teeth are discoloured, the colour of your eyes could stop traffic, the smell of tobacco precedes you, there’re barely any healthy veins left in your arm and your liver is failing. But what does it matter when you desperately need that next fix to stay sane.

Addiction refers to a chronic condition where one has no control over taking, doing or using a substance despite its harmful effects. The end result if left untreated is usually the eventual damage to the underlying organ. Bottom-line is, addiction like many other ailments is a disease. Specifically, a brain diseases.

Dopamine and the normal brain.

Whether you’re thinking of doing or not doing, being or not being the ultimate decision is run through the brain.  So how exactly does it work? The brain consist of millions of cells known as neurons which function as messengers sending signals to and fro between the brain and other body parts.  The transfer of messages from one neuron to the other is via the release of chemical signals known as neurotransmitters. Think of it as a 4 x 4 relay race where one athlete passes the baton onto the other till the end of the course. The baton in the case of the brain’s signalling mechanism is the neurotransmitter which contains the message being passed around. It is important that the signal is secured by the receptor for the process to be effective. After all, dropping the baton disqualifies you from the race. A key neurotransmitter in the brain is dopamine, which is released whenever the body is in a state of elation such as during rewards, emotions or pleasure. Once the elated state passes dopamine levels return to normal suppressed levels.

Addiction Science 2
Image reference: www.drugabuse.gov

The Drug Invasion

Now, if we revisit the image at the beginning of this article, did you notice the red patches in the normal brain and its absence or reduced intensity in the addicted state? The red patch is dopamine and this is the main chemical in your brain behind the science of addiction.

Substances of abuse are drugs or chemicals which can change the transmission system between neurons. When a person takes in an abusive substance, it deceives the body into thinking it’s in an elated state triggering the release of dopamine, only the mechanism is not the same as the natural release of dopamine and is not so easily controlled by the brain. An impersonator is never the real deal.

Addiction science 3
Image reference: www.drugabuse.gov

In the natural state, the release of dopamine occurs during the experience of emotion or reward. In the drug induced state, dopamine is released in anticipation of the reward as opposed to during the reward itself and the levels are higher than normal. What happens after the high is the calm sombre state what is commonly observed in addicts. This is because the pre mature spike of dopamine caused by taking the drugs empties all the dopamine stores and causes the reward system to slow down; it’s like waiting for the batons to be returned so the race can start again. The erratic and premature release of dopamine means the brains of addicts adjust in an attempt to restore normalcy and over time dopamine levels are significantly reduced. This is the cause of the difference in the red patches observed in the first image.

The only way an addict gets to experience the feeling of reward is from taking drugs and once that starts more drugs will be needed to achieve the same high.

It’s not a life sentence.

The reduced dopamine levels in the brains of addicts can be treated and levels increased over time. They may never return to a 100% but as with the treatment of many other chronic conditions one can return to having a good quality of life. Nothing that a bit of will power and science cannot fix.

Addiction science 4
Image Reference: J Neurosci 21:9414–9418, 2001.
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