How The Addiction to Dopamine Hijacks the Brain (Part 1)

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Author: Lynda Benigno

Scientific research tells us addiction hijacks the brain. The brain undergoes adverse changes that last long after the effects of the drug have worn off. Wiring in the brain is modified, and neurons die. The prefrontal cortex works with the anterior cingulate cortex in evaluating reward and punishment, controlling motivation, memory, attention, decision making, and regulating mood and emotions. Dopamine, a chemical released from neurons in the prefrontal cortex is released during pleasurable experiences. Eating, sex, exercise, meditation, or listening to music can trigger dopamine release. While a dose of dopamine from healthy activities is not problematic, the release of dopamine from stimulants increases the risk of addiction.

After ingesting a stimulant; dopamine is activated causing intense pleasure. In order to bring stimulation down to a manageable level the brain needs to adapt, so it offsets by reducing the number of dopamine receptor cells or increases the number of dopamine transporters. These changes cause drug tolerance leading to a higher amount of the drug being needed to achieve the same effects that were previously experienced.

For an addict, the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex no longer function properly. The ability to evaluate risk or make decisions becomes impaired. The addict experiences changes in their ability to learn as well as memory. In severe cases, other physical conditions can develop such as damage to organs, skin changes such as lesions or acne and dental problems. Studies show those who abuse drugs are twice as likely to develop a mood disorder and substance abuse has an effect on any pre-existing mental disorders. Mood swings, erratic behavior, psychosis ( losing touch with reality), depression, suicide, and death are possible outcomes. Drug use increases risky behavior and leads the addict to behave out of character, which can have serious consequences. When under the influence an addict is more likely to have an accident, overdose, engage in risky sexual activity, commit violent acts or commit suicide.

The effects of addiction go beyond the physical and mental body. Broken relationships along with legal and financial problems are often consequences an addict faces. We will explore this topic in Part 2.

If you or a loved one has a substance abuse problem, please contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357.

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author and not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any physical or mental condition. If you are struggling, please contact your healthcare provider, the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Stepping Stone Community Services at 330-577-6656.