Previously deemed a moral failure, scientists and researchers are now delving deeper into understanding and explaining the trap of addiction and its withdrawal effects.
An alarmingly high percentage of people are at the mercy of addictions such as drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, sex, etc.,. And there are an increasing number seemingly more innocuous, addictions also under debate – from obsessive gaming, mobile phone usage, social media interaction, to the simple buzz of one’s daily caffeine intake.
So what exactly is an addiction? Well it’s best explained as the brain’s neural paths being hijacked by the pursuit of intense desires and by the brain’s ‘desire directors’ becoming ‘super-charged’ by an artificial booster such as drugs, alcohol, caffeine, etc. These desire directors are dopamine and are needed to help us function on a daily basis.
So what is dopamine? Dopamine is a neuro-transmitter: a chemical released by nerve cells (neurons) to signal to other nerve cells. One of these dopamine pathways has a major role to play in our reward-motivated behaviours. It’s like a ‘pleasure magnet’ that helps us to gravitate towards certain activities. As humans we are primed to be ‘pleasure seekers’ and our brains evolved with dopamine-based reward systems to help us to survive.
Many of our lives are fuelled by natural ‘highs’ when the brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals are released i.e. during exercise or pain and laughing (endorphins); when we are sharing enjoyable moments with family (dopamine) or falling in love (oxytocin) – all these little pleasure magnets keep us going through life. Our everyday activities are steeped with dopamine ‘injections’ that keep us wanting to repeat them i.e. enjoying food so that we continue feeding ourselves; having fun in relationships to keep us collaborating, making sex enjoyable so that we reproduce ourselves, etc.,.
When the pleasure ‘circuit’ becomes artificially overwhelmed with certain drugs and our dopamine levels are amplified and tampered with, the system is deviated to a point of distraction and elevated to levels that seem incredibly appealing. It’s becomes too hard for the system to compete with the new stimuli. One can see why the brain will alter its circuit to craving this new super-dose of dopamine or pleasure. This could explain why a football player or rock star, having experienced the rush of a stadium full of fan’s adulation, may end up taking drugs to recreate the levels of highs experienced on the pitch or the stage and become ‘hooked’ in order to keep that momentous high going. These ‘highs’ may seem nigh on impossible to compete with.
Many addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity and alcohol acts as stimulant to the brain, again increasing dopamine in the reward pathways. For some this will explain why they ‘can’t wait to get home to that glass of wine after a hard days work’.
So addictions change the chemistry and paths of the brain as if changing the cells GPS systems, their signals and synapses. The reward schemata is hijacked to one that demands these new highs and that are dependent on the drug at the expense of what would have been the usual healthy reward system.
It’s like replacing all the typical daily magnets with one enormous ‘super-magnet’ that overpowers all others. The drug of choice begins to replace what used to be the usual priorities of simple family pleasures, going on a lovely holiday, feeling satisfied with our accomplishments at work and enjoying a delicious meal. The new, growing addiction quickly leads the user down a virtual one-way street or cul- de-sac: replacing, overriding and eliminating everything previously deemed of value.
The pre-frontal cortex is also affected. The rational, consequential brain that is more aware and helps with self-control is impaired too. Again, if the reward pathways are affected and our capacity to think is consequentially limited, this creates a very potent mix for the brain to be increasingly hooked.
The plasticity of a human brain – the genius masterstroke of evolution that enables us to be flexible – with an ability to heal and be malleable, can also contribute to our downfall. This plasticity makes us ‘hyper-vulnerable’ to deviation and allows the pull of the giant magnet to draw us deeper and deeper into the addiction and derail us onto a treacherous path of self-destruction.
This giant ‘super-magnet’ confuses our reward systems. As with all addictions, we soon cannot live without it. Its draw is so powerful and intense that without it being present at all times, we are ‘in withdrawal’ and feel utterly miserable. Being dependent on a very demanding magnet minimises our lives and becomes dangerous. We lose our sense of living in a healthy way. Some lose their jobs, their families; some even lose the will to sustain and feed themselves and the situation may become very critical indeed.
If your relationships or family life has been impacted by addiction it’s time to find a way to escape from this enormous magnet! Seek advice from your GP or other health professional. The brain is malleable and capable of healing itself in cases of addictions. The plasticity of the brain can be incredibly helpful for recovery. Retraining the brain and abstaining has worked in numerous cases and there appear to be some extraordinary success stories using the latest Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. This treatment is still on trial now but looks promising.
How does this work? Well, by using the brains own ‘engineering’ and stimulating the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is in charge of long-term decision making. Using the brain’s plasticity and stimulating the pre-frontal cortex offers the brain better options: a better chance to arm itself in battle against the addictions. This can reverse what the drug of choice does and reduce it’s appeal as if re-activating a healthy thoroughfare full of alternative stimuli that, once formerly shut down, can now compete with the giant magnet.