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Step-By-Step Brain Path to Addiction

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 31 May 2013 | comments*Discuss
Addiction Brain Steps Pathway Dopamine

Understanding what happens in the brain is important to learning how to prevent and treat addiction. While addiction still holds the stigma that it is fully under the control of the addict, research suggests otherwise. Most experts will agree that there are biological factors that lead to a person being more susceptible to addiction.

Addiction ‘rewires’ the brain to some extent, making treatment even more difficult. It involves biochemical changes in the brain that affect mood, thinking and the ability to control compulsion. An addict has problems with the reward pathway in their brain, making addiction very much a real illness.

Inside the Brain

In a normal, healthy brain, the reward pathway results in pleasurable feelings to naturally occurring stimuli in the environment, such as food or sex. The reward pathway is linked to many other pathways in the brain, including memory. This memory aspect is what would motivate you to do the same thing again because it results in you feeling good.

Genes and Addiction

Drinking alcohol or ingesting drugs disrupts this pathway. In people who are vulnerable to addiction due to genetic factors, this disrupted pathway may then ultimately lead to addiction. The person experiences a compulsion to continue using the substance.

Your Reward Pathways

Various biochemical signals communicate in the reward pathway, resulting in the release of chemicals such as dopamine, which leads to pleasurable feelings. Normally, this reward pathway occurs in steps where a person’s senses are engaged, causing the release of dopamine so that the person feels good. You would see this type of process if a person feels hungry. The release begins as the person anticipates food, and it goes down as they eat and fuel their hunger.

Excessive Dopamine in the Brain

With substances such as alcohol or drugs, however, you’re basically cutting past the senses to directly ignite the brain and start a quick high. As a result, dopamine release is heightened and too much of the chemical builds up on the brain. A person feels more energetic, confident and happy.

Then, the brain has to adjust itself to balance out the excessive chemicals, by reducing receptor numbers so that dopamine is at a normal level. A person experiences cravings, causing them to use the substance again, so that their reward pathway is activated. They remember the previous high, which pushes them to continue using even more.

Dangerous Cycle of Addiction

As dopamine receptors are reduced though, a person now has to take even more of the substance to get that same pleasurable high. Once they do so, the brain has to reduce receptors even further to achieve that chemical balance. These steps come together to create a devastating cycle of addiction.

Medications to Treat Addiction

By knowing more about the brain changes that occur with addiction, a key research focus remains for us to find ways to manipulate this path to improve addiction outcomes. Current treatments already available for drug or alcohol addiction work to influence the reward pathway or help reduce cravings for the substance. One way in which they influence the brain is to help to block reward receptors. While other medications work primarily to help reduce the withdrawal symptoms as a patient detoxes, it's critical to find new medications that can work on the brain response that occurs from addiction, helping addicts to again find pleasure in non-harmful ways.

Age Matters in Addiction

If you consider the step-by-step pathway to addiction, it is no surprise that those who become addicted to a substance when they are younger will find it harder to overcome the addiction. Just as you learn many things you don’t forget in your younger years, addiction is similar. Changes in the brain make it difficult for a person to move past the addiction and make it more of a reality that they could relapse. It’s all the more reason that early intervention and treatment are critical.

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