Addiction entails having an intense yearning for something, loss of control over its usage, and continual involvement with it in spite of adverse effects. Addiction alters the brain first by disrupting how it catalogues pleasure and then proceeds to corrupt other normal drives like motivation and learning. Even though breaking an addiction is difficult, it can still be done.
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Addiction has a long and potent effect on the brain that shows in three distinct ways: a longing for the addiction, loss of governorship over its usage, and continual usage despite adverse effects.
New insights into a common issue
No one starts out with the intention of developing an addiction, but most individuals get caught in its trap. Take into account the latest statistics provided by the government:
Approximately 23 million U.S. citizens – nearly 1 in 10 – have an addiction to alcohol or other drugs.
Over two-thirds of individuals with addiction, abuse alcohol.
The top 3 drugs that cause addiction include cocaine, marijuana, and opioid (narcotic) pain relievers.
The brain catalogues all pleasures identically, regardless if they come from a psychoactive drug, a satisfying meal, a sexual encounter, or monetary reward. Pleasure has a distinguishable signature in the brain: the discharge of dopamine neurotransmitter found in the nucleus accumbens, a collection of nerve cells located beneath the cerebral cortex. (see illustration). The release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens is so consistently affiliated with pleasure that scientists refer to that section as the pleasure centre of the brain.
All commonly abused drugs, from heroin to nicotine, result in a particularly powerful gush of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The chances that drug usage or involvement in a rewarding activity will result in addiction is linked to the speed with which it stimulates the release of dopamine, the intensity of that discharge, and the consistency of that discharge.
Researchers once believed that experiencing pleasure alone was sufficient to prompt a person to continue pursuing an activity or an addictive substance. But recent studies show that the situation is more intricate. Dopamine has proven to contribute to the experience of pleasure and also plays a hand in memory and learning – two primary elements when transitioning from liking something to getting addicted to it.
As per the current theory concerning addiction, dopamine relates with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to control the reward-related learning system of the brain. This system plays an integral role when it comes to sustaining life since it links activities required for human survival (like sex and eating) with pleasure and reward.
Development of tolerance
With time, the brain acclimatizes in a manner that actually makes the addictive activity or substance less gratifying.
In essence, rewards often come as a result of time and effort. Addictive behaviours and drugs offer a shortcut, filling the brain with dopamine and other neurotransmitters. This doesn’t leave our brains with an easy way of withstanding the onslaught.
Compulsion takes over
Compulsion will take over, at this juncture. The pleasure affiliated with addictive behaviour or drug becomes less intense and yet the desired effect’s memory and the desire to recreate it persists. It’s as if the machinery of motivation isn’t functioning anymore.
The learning process mentioned above also comes into the fold. The amygdala and hippocampus store data about environmental cues affiliated with the desired substance. These memories assist in creating a conditioned response when the individual comes upon those environmental cues.
Cravings not only contribute to addiction but to relapse after several years or months of sobriety. It’s more likely that an individual addicted to heroin may relapse and start using again after seeing a hypodermic needle, for instance, while another individual may begin drinking again after seeing alcohol. Conditioned learning assists in explaining why individuals with addictions risk relapsing.