Though some people believe drugs addicts simply enjoy using drugs and don’t want to stop, or that they lack the willpower to stop, addiction is really more complicated than that. Often, addicts do want to stop using. But addiction is a disease, and as such, it affects the brain.
How Drugs Affect The Brain
When people begin using drugs, the way the brain functions begins to change.
Drugs have an effect on the way the brain communicates, and they can affect the way nerve cells send, receive, and interpret information.
Drugabuse.gov states that there are two ways this disruption of the brain can happen: 1) by imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers and 2) by overstimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain.
“Tricking” your brain
The brain’s response is different depending on the type of drug being used. For example, some drugs have a similar makeup as the neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that allow the body to communicate. When drugs such as marijuana are introduced into the brain, their similarities in makeup can trick the brain and result in abnormal messages being sent.
However, when other drugs, such as cocaine or meth, are introduced into the body, the nerves in the brain can overreact and release larger than normal amounts of neurotransmitters. These types of drugs can also interfere with the way the brain typically recycles chemicals, resulting in an overload of dopamine, which is responsible for emotions, movements, and pleasure/pain.
Because dopamine produces a high, this is generally an enjoyable feeling. The body starts to associate this feeling with drugs, which in result means a person continues to use to reach that same high.
As the body does with many substances, it eventually begins to adjust to the effects of the drug, until a higher dose of the drug is necessary in order to reach the same high as before. This is why a drug addict’s use likely escalates over time – because the body is becoming used to the substance and more is required to evoke the same high. This begins a vicious cycle because the addict will continue to use and continue to up the amount of drugs being used as their tolerance builds.
In short, the brain can’t tell the difference between where pleasure is coming from, and reacts the same way (by releasing dopamine) whether it be because of a drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, exercising or eating something that tastes good.
Dopamine releases in a spot in the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is a nerve cluster under the cerebral cortex. Because of this pleasure surge, it is often referred to as the brain’s “pleasure center.”
The probability that a drug or activity will turn into an addiction is dependent upon the speed of which it creates a dopamine release, the intensity of the release and the predictability of the release.
Who can become addicted to drugs?
The short answer is that anyone can become an addict. However, there are some factors that can make certain individuals more susceptible than others. Drugabuse.gov states that three of these factors are biology, environment, and development.
Biology and environment go hand in hand, in a way.
According to a study in PubMed Central, “Both genetic and environmental variables contribute to the initiation of use of addictive agents and to the transition from use to addiction. Addictions are moderately to highly heritable. Family, adoption and twin studies reveal that an individual’s risk tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative…The moderate to high heritabilities of addictive disorders are paradoxical,because addictions initially depend on the availability of the addictive agent and the individual’s choice to use it. ”
In other words, addiction can be genetic, but is also affected by the environment in which one is raised. If drugs and alcohol are not readily available and are not considered the norm as someone is growing up, they are less likely to begin using the substances.
However, if substance abuse is common in the home they are raised in, they may be more prone to considering it normal and partaking in it themselves, leading to addiction.
This is where development also comes into the picture.
While addiction can be spurred at any age, the earlier someone starts using an addictive substance, the more likely they are to develop an addiction.
This can be especially dangerous for adolescents experimenting with drug use, as their brains are still developing when it comes to decision-making and self-control.
When to get help
It’s never too early or too late to ask for help with an addiction. If you suspect that you or someone you know may have a substance abuse problem, seek help today.
Bevilacqua, L and Goldman, D. Genes and Addiction. PubMed Central. 27 July 2009. Accessed 11 July 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2715956/
DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction. Drugabuse.gov. Revised November 2012. Accessed 11 July 2016.
Understanding addiction. Helpguide.org. Accessed 11 July 2016. http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain.htm