Part of the complete guide to understanding addiction
Table of Contents
- Dopamine and Addiction
- Your Brain on a Substance
- Understanding Addiction
- How Does a Substance Cause a Disruption in the Brain?
- Dopamine’s Complex Relationship with Pleasure
- How Does Dopamine Reinforce Drug Use?
- How Do Substances Effect Dopamine Levels?
- Why Are Drugs So Much More Addictive Than Natural Rewards?
- What Happens When You Stop Feeding Your Brain a Substance?
Dopamine and Addiction
Have you ever wondered what causes the “high” one experiences from a substance? Scientists have studied the brain to try to uncover what makes substances so alluring. What is this seemingly magnetic pull towards certain substances while others don’t produce any charge?
Your Brain on a Substance
Imagine a mail delivery system where your mail is all mixed up. You receive your neighbor’s mail, while she receives no mail. Or the package you needed for Sunday arrives on Thursday, while next week’s packages arrive today. This is how your brain operates on a substance. Substances confuse the neurotransmitters of the brain, causing them to fire abnormally 1. Our neurotransmitters act as the “mail system” of the brain, carrying messages between the different neurons. When this system is off, we act and feel differently.
Substance use disorder currently affects 25% of American adults 2. Addiction is often inaccurately represented, as a simple matter of bad behavioral choices. The truth of addiction is vastly more complex. Scientists have found that there are several factors that make one vulnerable to addiction. When a person has more than one of these factors, they are prone to addiction often without their knowledge.
How Does a Substance Cause a Disruption in the Brain?
Substances enter the brain and either act as neurotransmitters or increase levels of specific neurotransmitters. These chemical changes in the brain affect various systems in the body. Common reactions include activation of the brain’s reward center, stress center, and a lack of self-control and planning.
Dopamine’s role in the body is that of a messenger carrying nerve “alerts” through different areas in the brain 3. When dopamine is increased, it will activate circuits throughout the brain. It is responsible for muscle control, impulse control, and the brain’s reward system.
Dopamine’s Complex Relationship with Pleasure
You have probably dopamine, referred to as the “pleasure” chemical. Taking a drink, having sex, smoking a joint, or playing a video game are all associated with a “dopamine hit.”
Is this accurate?
There is a common misconception that dopamine causes pleasure. This is not entirely accurate. Instead, dopamine influences the way our brains process pleasure. When dopamine is released during an activity or from a thing or experience, it reinforces the expectation of satisfaction. It also motivates you to seek out pleasurable experiences repeatedly. Simply put, dopamine will cheer your body on to pursue pleasure.
How Does Dopamine Reinforce Drug Use?
While dopamine will not convince someone to become an addict or seek a drug again and again, it does reinforce the effects of a substance. Many substances produce a surge of dopamine when absorbed. This increase in dopamine helps the neurons in the brain create more connections and links the feelings of pleasure with the substance. This will cause you to seek it again and again. 4
How Do Substances Effect Dopamine Levels?
Drugs with an addictive component accomplish this by sending a flood of dopamine to the part of the brain responsible for reward. The brain’s reward center comprises three parts located in the frontal cortex. However, the brain produces lower dopamine levels through the regular use of a substance 5. This causes an imbalance in the brain and the sensation of withdrawal or the low often felt after a drug wears off. To avoid this feeling, addicts seek the drug again and crave it.
Why Are Drugs So Much More Addictive Than Natural Rewards?
Our bodies are wired permanently to seek out homeostasis and balance. Therefore, the brain will shut off its regular dopamine production when a drug is reportedly used. When the substance isn’t present in one’s body, the brain produces less than average dopamine levels. This will cause a person to feel unengaged in regular daily activities and can cause feelings of depression when not under the influence of a substance.
What Happens When You Stop Feeding Your Brain a Substance?
The brain’s neural pathways are repairable. This means you can always teach your brain a new way. When your dopamine circuits are disrupted from addiction, it can take the brain a while to return to regular dopamine releases. The process of returning to normal can be painful as the brain readjusts. In recovery, this period is known as withdrawal. During withdrawal, the brain is starving for dopamine, which can cause physical and psychological symptoms. However, over time the brain will rebuild its healthy pathways and return to regular activity.
To learn more about how drugs affect the brain, read our online resource on this topic.