The symptoms of addiction include but aren’t limited to intense cravings for something, the inability to control the use of that thing, and the continuing use despite negative consequences. Addictions alter the brain, first by changing the way it seizes pleasure and then by interfering with normal drives such as motivation and learning. Even though overcoming an addiction is an extremely challenging thing, it can be done.
Addiction has a strong and long lasting influence on the brain, with three directions of action: cravings, loss of control over the use of the object of addiction, and ongoing involvement with it despite its negative effects on the person.
Nobody wants to develop an addiction, yet many people fall pray to it. Let’s take a closer look at some official statistics:
Almost 23 million Americans suffer from an alcohol or drug addiction. This means one in 10 people are addicts.
Over 60% of people with addictions have a history of alcohol abuse.
The top three substances people develop addictions for are marijuana, cocaine, and opioid pain killers.
The brain acknowledges pleasure in the same way, be it the result of a psychoactive drug, a promising date, a delicious meal, or a monetary reward. In the brain, pleasure manifests itself by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine in an area of the brain called nucleus accumbens. Dopamine release is so tightly connected to pleasure that neuroscience specialists call this brain area the pleasure centre.
Drug abuse, whether nicotine, marijuana, heroin or anything else, triggers a dopamine spike in the nucleus accumbens. There is a direct link between the speed of the dopamine release after taking a substance and the probability of developing an addiction to that substance.
Scientists once thought that the experience of pleasure in itself was the main trigger for the behaviour of seeking the use and the abuse of the incriminated substance. However, latest research shows that the situation is way more complex. Dopamine also plays a major role in memory and learning. These are two important elements of the transition between simply enjoying something and developing an addiction to it.
Current theories about addiction state that dopamine interacts with glutamate, another neurotransmitter. Together they control the reward-related learning process of the brain. This pleasure and reward system is essential for human survival, as it is directly linked to activities that sustain life such as eating and copulating.
Over time, the brain develops tolerance by making the use of the desired substance less pleasurable.
In nature, most rewards require time and effort to acquire. Addictive substances and behaviours offer an interesting shortcut by flooding the brain with dopamine. Our brains aren’t built to cope with that, so most of us end up by developing addictions.
At this point, compulsion takes control over the brain. The pleasure associated with the addictive substance or behaviour fades away and the brain feels the urge to recreate it. This messes up with the bodily mechanisms of motivation and alters their normal functioning.
The learning process starts doing its job. The hippocampus and the amygdala record and store data about environmental triggers associated with the desired substance, in order to be able to locate it again. Whenever the individual comes across those environmental triggers, he or she experiences a conditioned response, which is the intense craving for the substance.
Cravings are also to blame for relapses occurring after relatively long periods of sobriety. A heroin addicted person may be in danger of a relapse at the sight of a hypodermic needed. A recovering alcoholic might start to drink again after seeing a glass of whiskey. Conditioned learning helps us understand why people who have been sober for so many years end up by relapsing.