Dopamine and Addiction: A Dysfunctional Relationship
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical responsible for transmitting signals between brain nerve cells. In short, it’s neurotransmitter. There are actually just a few nerve cells which produce dopamine. Neurons which do, however, release the chemical when activated.
The dopamine pathway in the brain is known as the mesolimbic pathway. Dopamine is the chemical that makes humans feel love, desire, motivation, attention, and yes – addiction. When a drug or alcohol activates a dopamine transmitter, more dopamine is released into the brain. This effect is what keeps people coming back for more of…well, whatever it is that makes them feel good.
Basically, dopamine creates pleasure, such as with eating or sex. Many of these pleasures must exist just so that we survive. That is, we get pleasure from food, so we eat. If we do not gain pleasure from food, we are most likely going to starve. Therefore, dopamine drives us to derive good feelings from performing basic but indispensable bodily functions.
How Dopamine and Addiction Interact
Similarly, drugs become addictive when brain feels the ultra-high pleasure the drug produces, and understandably, wants to do is again. And again. So just like eating, the brain now seeks to emulate whatever behavior made it feel good in the first place. But this is a fruitless endeavor, because the drug will never actually sate the need that the brain is now seeking. This is dependency. Just as inhaling opium is called “chasing the dragon”, our brains are literally chasing that feeling that we once had the first time(s) we used a substance.
One of the biggest problems with addictive drugs is the pleasure they bring doesn’t balance out with other pleasures. In fact, the limbic brain becomes inundated with dopamine, and from then on, doesn’t play nice with regular old dopamine activators. In fact, sometimes as much as 10 times the usual level is produced.
This extreme chemical reward is what our brain begins to associate with pleasure, and over time, other activities which used to make our brain happy do not do so anymore. Thus, the drug has literally told our brains what makes us feel good, and unfortunately, at that point nothing else can really compare.
Dopamine and Addiction – Tolerance
The brain releases the most dopamine when something pleasurable, yet unexpected occurs. So from thereafter, the brain wants that “unexpected” good feeling. But since it only works in the beginning, over time it takes more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. This is called tolerance.
When someone quits a drug, the hardest part is always getting back to that base level of dopamine pleasure. The longer the addict stays clean, the more likely the brain will return to normal. It will begin, albeit slowly, to revert back to those things that it used to enjoy. Not surprisingly, the greater the drug dependence and tolerance, the longer it will take to get back to equilibrium. This is the only way to break a long-term relationship with dopamine and addiction.
If you or someone you know is an addict or alcoholic, please seek help immediately.