The Biology of Addiction: Breaking it Down
We all walk around daily with thoughts, behaviors, and conditioned routines. For many of us in society we wake up, shower, eat, go to work, relax, and sleep. Rinse, wash, and repeat. In this daily routine our brains function normally and we allow thoughts to pass, behaviors, and emotions to come and go without giving many of them a second thought.
But what about the brain that is addicted to drugs?
How does the brain exemplify its addiction through behaviors?
To understand we have to gain a general understanding of how the brain and drugs work and some important chemicals within it. Everyone wants a quick fix but understanding the biology behind addiction allows us greater depth of understanding in how recovery from addiction can be a lengthy process.
Pleasure & Reward
First, we must look at the brain as a whole and then break it down into the parts that play an important role in executing complex tasks, sleep, memory, and emotional regulation. Most drugs affect the dopamine pathways in the brain, specifically the mesolimbic pathway. This is the pleasure and reward center of the brain. This pathway controls an individual’s response to awards and such things as food and sex but it also controls the response to substances people abuse. It regulates the determination and motivation to repeat a pleasurable experience by storing in memory the steps taken to achieve it.
This sounds complicated, but it isn’t.
Take a moment to think of a pleasurable behavior you engage in and begin to break it down from macro to micro. How do you know it’s coming, what steps do you take, do you feel euphoria when getting closer to enjoying the experience, and what is the response once the behavior is complete? The mesolimbic pathway that is working for your pleasurable experiences is the same for people who are using drugs. So we are not so different, what is different, is the behaviors leading up to and the mechanism used to get the dopamine response.
A Look At Love
Many people have trouble relating to biology and addiction so let’s utilize an example we have all experienced. Love! How is love addicting you may ask? Love is addicting because it alters the powerful chemicals in our brain that we associate with attachment, bonding, reward, and anticipation of reward, safety and trust. Love, as we will call it, is acting on our everyday lives. The chemicals associated with love include endogenous opioids, dopamine, serotonin, vasopressin, and oxytocin; interestingly, these are all chemicals drugs of abuse increase or decrease. When we interact with something and do it again, and then again, these chemicals are acting to reinforce the desire or need to do so. When they are no longer available withdrawal or dependency becomes evident and denial or the chase for the high occurs. Many people choose to exercise because it offers the same natural high which stimulates the release of these chemicals. This is because the stimulation of exercise releases endorphins and dopamine which is followed by the feeling to attach and bond to the source again.
When we think about it from afar, the brain is simply the mechanism by which we learn. However, each of us learns differently and engage in different rewarding behaviors. This is because the brain is plastic throughout most of its lifespan. It adapts to learn and strengthens where information is more readily used and prunes information that is not. Synaptic pruning is what helps older people become more efficient at their jobs, helps babies navigate there sensory and motor abilities, and helps teens organize neural networks to become more processing efficient. The same process controls addiction and the course of relapse over lengthy periods of time.
The brain is a complex system of many complex regions all of which are constantly firing within neural networks. Neural networks contain the highway that connects the different parts of the brain together. They are highly social and without interaction, the brain would cease to learn. Neurons and networks are strengthened by the experience of a stimulus, whether that stimulus is good or bad. Therefore, one can assume excitation of a neuronal network isn’t always positive based on the how the person is experiencing something, in this case drugs of abuse. Someone who has experienced trauma or using drugs will have the same reinforcing neuronal excitation another person would have in a happy moment. These become integrated or learned in the brain differently based on the experience and shapes future behaviors.
Back to Pleasure & Reward
So where is this all leading? The brain, for being as complex as it is, struggles to differentiate between love, food, sex, and drugs. It prunes neurons and builds stronger bonds and attachment to experiences that are rewarding. When a drug is introduced to the body, the brain says this is highly rewarding, how have we arrived at this point and let’s engage in this behavior again, and again. With repeated use, the brain adapts, and the neural circuitry becomes altered due to the drugs high jacking the neuron and altering the intake or reuptake of specific chemicals. This causes abnormality of the circuity and leads to the brain now needing the substances to regulate itself because its natural state to produce certain chemicals has been overwhelmed or overridden.
With repeated administration, drugs have affected the brain’s natural ability to produce endogenous chemicals and that is when addiction begins. This is the point where many people enter treatment. They recognize that they can no longer function in specific realms of life without utilizing an external substance or the substance they are using embeds them in a life not worth living. These realms can be occupational, emotional, and social; all of which are intertwined. Addiction is an encompassing disease in which once the drug use is terminated, the specific reasons a person picks up a drug can then begin to be processed through psychotherapy. The brain also has to rewire itself and adapt to producing endogenous chemicals on its own again. Think about when you injure yourself and the body takes a multistep process to help heal the wounds. The same can be said for drug addiction and the brain. When drug using ceases, the brain must adapt to regain its homeostasis. This can be a lengthy process and is dependent on the user’s drug of choice and length of use.
Addiction is a process that takes place over time and recovery from addiction should also be given time. Addiction didn’t start overnight and recovery isn’t a one-day process. The slope was always easier to go down than the climb back up. So I end with this, no immediate solution is available to those seeking them, but with medication and psychotherapy hope is always available to those willing to take the initiative.
Author: Daniel Harris MS, LAC – Footprints to Recovery Admissions Counselor