The chemistry of addicted brain
Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences. It is where there is compulsive seeking attitude while obtaining a substance when behaviour becomes out of control.
Addiction is recognised medically to be a disease, and is not caused by a single factor. Rather it is a combination and interaction of different forces at play.
Addiction is an outcome of genetics, environment and stress. What a person is most addicted to is actually dependent on what neurotransmitter is the most out of balance in a person's brain.
Stress is notably a key trigger for most addictions, because it imbalances the brain's natural balance called the homeostasis, which significantly increases the risk that a person will develop an addictive self medicating behaviour.
Neurotransmitters are often referred to as chemical messengers, which are the molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages between neurons (brain cells) in the brain, or from neurons to the muscles of the body. The primary neurotransmitters involved in addiction are called Dopamine, Serotonin, Noradrenalin.
Dopamine — the reward system: Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in charge of pleasure. Whenever we experience something pleasurable Dopamine is released in a part of our brain called the the nucleus accumbus also known as the the reward centre of the brain. After which the brain desires to keep repeating the experience that created and made the pathway stronger.
But an excess of Dopamine in children causes Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However in adults and older adolescents an elevated amount of Dopamine can cause mania and bipolar disorders.
Serotonin: It is the neurotransmitter commonly known as the mood stabiliser and for regulating emotions. A lack of serotonin can hence actually lead to depression. For people with low serotonin levels, the drugs that they are most like to abuse are alcohol and opiates.
Both tend to mimic serotonin and tend to make the person feel great. Treatment for serotonin mimicking drugs are much trickier than for dopamine.
Noraadrenaline: It is the neurotransmitter responsible for keeping the brain informed of potential threats and danger. An overflow of Noradrenaline causes anxiety.
A massive over abundance of Noradrenaline causes extreme anxieties even in the simplest situations. It has also been shown to modulate the function of certain types of immune cells.
An overabundance of of Noradrenaline can also cause disruption of sleep cycle. Blood pressure is further raised by noradrenaline as a result of its effects on the heart muscle, which increase the output of blood from the heart.
Noradrenaline also acts to increase blood glucose levels and levels of circulating free fatty acids. Norepinephrine is used clinically as a means of maintaining blood pressure in certain types of shock. Having constant or extreme anxieties can lead to people making bad decisions.
Some drugs help to lessen anxieties but too much of it can actually lead to some detrimental conditions.
A little note about genetics: We are innately born with an imbalance in these 3 chemicals, but it is really an individual's choice that will determine if an s/he will lead towards addiction. Genes have also been linked to certain addiction. If an individual knows that their family has a history of drug abuse, then it is best to avoid it — because there is a high chance that the particular individual may get addicted.
In fact studies have shown that children born to alcoholics have a 4 times more likelihood of becoming drug addicts compared to those born to non alcoholics
The craving effect: The brain's pleasure pathways are created from significantly repeated patterns of behaviour. For an addict even the vision or sight of a place or object they have used to do drugs can actually release dopamine down the pleasure pathways! Even odors of certain drugs can have the same response and then the brain will start craving more of what leads them to have the dopamine effect! Almost all and every relapses began from craving. Craving are the root causes of relapses in most cases!
Addicts are very sensitive, especially while their rode to recovery, because even the slightest thing like the sight of a place or even a smell of a drug could cause severe cravings leading to relapses.
The writer is a student of Psychology at the York University in Toronto, Canada.