Your Brain on Drugs

Your Brain on Drugs

By Colin Gilbert

The human brain is wired for survival; it is programmed to promote the longevity of both the individual and the species. One of the main ways it helps us survive is by initiating specific cravings. Hunger and thirst, for example, remind us (sometimes quite urgently) that we need to eat and drink to survive. Correspondingly, the human sex drive encourages the propagation of the human race. When we satisfy our cravings for hunger, thirst, or sex, our brain rewards us with sensations of pleasure and contentment, and that reward comes in the form of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

The system of craving and reward, known as the limbic system, is a convenient feature of the human brain when it comes to survival, but, unfortunately, it also has a downside. When the brain becomes confused about what it needs and what it doesn’t need, it craves and rewards the wrong impulses, and addiction is born.

Mixed signals of this kind readily occur when drugs are involved, because drugs release dopamine in the brain, just like food and sex do. The pleasing sensation or “rush” created by drugs like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, or heroin is similar to the reward given for satisfying survival instincts, but often more intense. As a result, the brain is given the impression that it will not survive without the dopamine-releasing drug. Then, as rational beings, we understandably begin to believe that we really do need the drug in the same way we need food or water.

Another dangerous vulnerability in the brain relates to its unique plasticity—that is, its ability to change. It’s another example of strength also being a weakness. The brain has the remarkable capacity to adapt when life throws unexpected curveballs. It enables us to heal from trauma and function in all kinds of unfamiliar environments, if we just give it enough time to rewire itself.

But the brain’s tendency to accommodate specific mental states can also open the door to addiction. When a drug enters the system, dopamine is released in unnatural ways, and the brain compensates by cutting off its need for natural dopamine. The receptors lose their sensitivity and neurons even produce less dopamine of their own. The process of the brain adapting to unnatural sources of dopamine by reducing its natural levels is called “down regulation.” It decides that the drug will be its new source of dopamine and, as a result, begins to crave it in increasing amounts.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the kinds of substances that people abuse can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that is released when normal rewards are received. Such an overwhelming flood of dopamine thoroughly convinces the brain that the drug is needed for its survival. Hence, the snowball effect of addiction takes place as the brain struggles to make sense of dopamine overloads by becoming less receptive to it and therefore more dependent on the drugs through which the dopamine comes.

All of this is compounded by the psychological and emotional components of addiction. Many addicts first tried drugs as a way to feel better about life. When they receive the deceptive “rewards” for taking the drug, it only solidifies their belief that they need the drug to feel good or even okay. When they try to stop taking it, the brain forcefully and immediately reminds them of its new source of dopamine. Painful withdrawal symptoms ensue, and life without the drug becomes a distant memory. Eventually, any absence of the drug yields crushing lows and an obsession for more. Breaking the dependence feels like an impossible dream.

Fortunately, though, the brain’s weakness is also its strength. With proper medical guidance, emotional support, and a great deal of discipline, the brain can once again learn to live without the drug. Over time, it can resume natural dopamine production and a healthy balance can be restored.

The human brain is astonishingly powerful and complex, yet it is also delicately balanced. Its internal harmony is easily disrupted when foreign chemicals interfere with its regular activity. To be sure, it is not a toy to be played with. The countless stories of drug abuse and alcoholism in the world, both tragic and triumphant, testify to the terrors of addiction.

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