The Neuroscience of Addiction 

Addiction exists in all of our lives be, it through media representations or personal experiences. While you may be able to recognize the behavioral aspects of an individual battling addiction, it is not as common to understand what is actively going on in their brain. 

Within our brains are chemicals called neurotransmitters that are passed back and forth by neurons allowing connections to form and messages to be communicated. The neurotransmitters attach to their specific receptor on the next neuron, and the message continues to be transmitted. One of these neurotransmitters called dopamine is part of the reward pathway in the brain. When an individual uses a drug or other addictive substance, dopamine is released into the reward pathway to stimulate a feeling of happiness and pleasure. Normally, this pathway is used for life sustaining activities such as eating healthy food, but drugs and alcohol can also produce the same rewarding effect. 

Addiction begins when these drugs and addictive substances produce a more intense feeling of pleasure than other healthy activities and substances meant to trigger the dopamine reward pathway. This overflow of dopamine from using drugs results in the feeling of being high. As an individual continues to use these drugs, this overflow of dopamine will trigger the dopamine receptors on the neurons within the reward pathway to decrease in number. Since there is a significantly larger amount of dopamine in this pathway while the individual is using the addictive substance, less dopamine receptors are needed in order to feel the same amount of pleasure that an individual would feel normally with healthy activities such as eating a good lunch or doing well on an exam. 

Once these receptors have decreased an individual will struggle to feel the same feelings of pleasure and reward when they are sober. There are now less receptors to receive this pleasurable neurotransmitter, so when drugs or addictive substances aren’t being used the individual cannot get enough pleasure and happiness from activities that they used to be able to. Another downside of this decrease in dopamine receptors is how addicted individuals will now need to use a greater amount of the addictive substance in order to feel the same amount of high that they originally did with a lesser amount of that substance. 

Think of it as throwing a ball into a hoop. Originally there are twenty hoops, so when you are throwing your ball (representing dopamine) you were likely to get it into a hoop (representing the next neuron in the dopamine reward pathway), which results in a feeling of pleasure. When you use addictive drugs, the amount of hoops you have decreases overtime. When you only have ten hoops, you are less likely to get your ball into the hoop and therefore you feel the need to increase the amount of balls you are throwing, which represents increasing the amount of drugs you need to take in order to be able to successfully achieve the same high as you originally did when you started doing drugs.

Our brains are powerful learners, and once they receive an addictive substance such as drugs or alcohol they will learn that this substance means pleasure. Overtime you will begin to find less pleasure in things that used to make you happy since none of these original activities produce the same amount of dopamine as drugs now do. This cycle is extremely hard to break, and can lead to extremely negative consequences in both your life and the lives of those around you, so the best thing to do is to avoid these addictive drugs in the first place. 

– Haidyn Emmerich
Nourish Your Mind Blog Contributor
Neuroscience & Psychology Student – Syracuse University
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