Why are our brains so susceptible to becoming quickly addicted to substances? Whether it is alcohol or opioids, the premises of addiction in the brain are the same.
Through my work with SADD and prevention advocacy, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) employees and scientists and the answer is the same- our brains like things that make us feel good.
In the past, it was thought that addicts were “morally flawed” and “weak”. However, now, we know that this is untrue and our brain and other factors may be to blame for addictions.
It is proven that certain people have risk factors that may increase the likelihood that they will form an addiction. These include environmental factors like poor home lives and availability. Biological factors include mental disorders, gene combinations, and sex.
Addiction comes from the basis of pleasure. When an addictive substance is used, it targets the brain’s reward circuit, the limbic system. The limbic system produces feel-good hormones (called dopamine) that make us feel good whenever we eat, sleep, socialize, or perform any other necessary behavior in order to make us repeat the behavior. It is crucial to our survival. The limbic system, however, doesn’t discriminate whenever it comes to drug use. The limbic system releases those same hormones whenever drugs are used and makes the user feel the need to repeat the behavior, thus, potentially forming an addiction (NIDA).
So the question is, why do we not get addicted to those normal behaviors? The answer is that our brains are wired for those behaviors, but drugs affect our brain’s systems in an unnatural way. In fact, drugs can release up to 10 times more dopamine than natural behaviors. This is why they are so addictive.
Some drugs can mimic the behavior of naturally occurring neurotransmitters. They are similar in chemical structure to the neurotransmitters and bind at the receptor site, activating the neuron. While this doesn’t sound like a bad thing because the neuron is still activated, it is activated in a strange and unnatural way. The neuron sends abnormal messages to other parts of the brain causing a “high”. Other drugs cause the neuron to release large amounts of the natural neurotransmitters. Abnormal amounts of the neurotransmitters disrupt communication between parts of the brain. (Myers’).
Prolonged exposure to the drug is where the problem really kicks in. The brain becomes used to those large amounts of dopamine and doesn’t respond to them anymore. This is when users feel the need to begin using more and more of the drug to feel the high again.
Long term use of drugs is proven to affect the way our brains function. Addicts have poor impulse control and decision making, decline in cognitive function, and changes in neural circuits. (NIDA).
So, drug abuse and addiction doesn’t only affect you socially, it affects the way your brain functions. Drugs affect your brain in unnatural ways that we are not wired for. Next time you’re trying to find a “high”, skip the drugs and try socializing instead, your brain will reward you in the same way.
“Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction” Online Book, National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
Myers’ Psychology, Unit 5
Photo credits to “I, Science” and the Queensland Brain Institute
Reference to SADD, Check out Students Against Destructive Decisions at sadd.org