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The Biology of Addiction

Monday, September 17, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Credit:  National Institute on Drug Abuse

There are many types of addiction, some that involve substances like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and those that involve behaviors such as gambling or sex. And all share common attributes: compulsive, persistent and harmful. Science has discovered they also share a common biology in the brain. Any addiction taps into pathways deep inside the brain that give pleasure. This month ideastream is exploring addiction as part of our ongoing health information series, Be Well. Health reporter Anne Glausser begins by explaining how an essential chemical in the brain becomes problematic in addiction.

Brain cells need to talk to each other and dopamine you could say is the language of pleasure.

[Instrumental French accordion music starts to play]

And this language is spoken when people are enjoying most anything, whether it’s eating, seeing something beautiful, using drugs, or having sex. 

[French music continues]

Drugs cause extra dopamine to be released in the brain and it packs a powerful punch.  It feels good.

For some people who try drugs, the story stops there.
A caution sign goes up. Their brains put on the brakes.

[French music fades out]

But for some people, their genes make them prone to go back for more. 

[Sheryl Crow’s All I Wanna Do starts to play:
“All I wanna do is have some fun, I got a feeling I’m not the only one…”]

HOFFER:  We know that certain people are resistant; other people are more addiction prone—that we think in part is because there’s a sort of genetic mosaic. We have different kinds of dopamine receptors.

That’s Dr. Barry Hoffer. He spent fifteen years as Scientific Director for the National Institute on Drug Abuse and now lives in Cleveland and is an adjunct professor at Case. 

He says the type and amount of “receptors” or landing pads for dopamine, varies among people and this is thought to play a role in addiction. 

[Instrumental science-themed music starts to play]

Research also points to genetic impairments in areas of the brain involved in impulsivity and self-control. Different drugs work on people in different ways as well. Overall, genes account for over half of a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

That said,

HOFFER:  Anybody, I think anybody, with the use of certain drugs or the chronic use can become addicted.

[Dissonant piano music starts to play]

This is because repeated drug use can rewire the brain.  The brakes get damaged.

HOFFER:  We have our brain literally—and that’s literally— rewired, so memory and cognition and motivation all become sort of linked into drug use. And see that’s why it’s compulsive because in a sense we’ve rewired our brain.

[Dissonant piano music continues]

Values get warped—the drug becomes the end-all for an addict—nothing’s more important.

[Dissonant piano music fades out]

Suddenly those whispers of pleasure that a person might get from food or cuddling or watching their kid’s soccer game, are drowned out by the megaphone blast of dopamine that many drugs give. 

Brains adapt to it, and then addicts, they’re not chasing the buzz so much as they’re just trying to feel normal. 

[Instrumental science-themed music starts to play]

Experts say this same basic process underpins all drug addictions—heroin, cocaine, meth, alcohol, nicotine—it’s even thought to hold true for certain behaviors like gambling.

[Instrumental science-themed music fades out]

Addiction is characterized by powerful cravings, compulsive use, and any attempt at stopping, can lead to mental and physical pain. 

It’s a complicated disease, though and there are other factors beyond the biological that matter—such as how a person grows up, whether they’ve experienced trauma, who they hang out with, the environment they’re in, the availability of drugs.

[Mick Jagger’s Old Habits Die Hard starts with instrumentals]

This mixed nature of addiction is what makes it so hard to understand, and to treat.

But as scientists learn more, the hope is to find new and better ways to help manage this brain disease. 

[Mick Jagger’s Old Habits Die Hard continues:
I thought I shook myself free
You see, I bounce back quicker than most
But I’m half delirious, Is too mysterious
You walk through my walls like a ghos
t"]

Anne Glausser, 90.3

[Mick Jagger’s Old Habits Die Hard continues:
Old habits die hard” and then fades out]

Tags

Health, Mental Health, Addiction

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