What is addiction? Discourse #1

The easiest way for me to describe an addiction is that it is a mental disorder directly related to exposure in the brain to drugs or alcohol with a primary symptom of impaired choice. Over time, addiction progresses based on the way that the human brain’s survival mechanisms are hardwired. The human brain is nothing short of amazing, but vulnerable. Addiction hijacks specific brain systems by:

  1. Infiltrating the brain’s feeling center, the limbic system, by imitating naturally occurring chemicals
  2. Initiating chemical reactions in the part of our brains that facilitate things like choice, motivation, drives and survival.

Consider the story of Lisa.

What Lisa described as “Love” is another way of describing the impairment of her choice. She had set into her mind a sustaining compass point that interfered with her previous sense of choice. In those moments of Lisa’s life, the initial addiction period, her brain was changing how it worked because of the presence of the drugs. I am not suggesting that all people who develop addictions feel the “love” as a part of their initial addiction, people report a variety of different responses and feelings. What I am suggesting is that Lisa’s description of her addiction demonstrates the experience of the brain malfunction, the mental disorder. This process is difficult to give an “elevator speech” on, but I will try by talking about learning and the brain chemical dopamine, which is one of the brain chemicals activated by drug use.

Dopamine is a protein, a neurochemical, which is related to our experience of pleasure. Scientists once believed that the experience of pleasure alone was enough to account for addiction. But more recent research suggests that the situation is more complicated. Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure, but also plays a role in learning, motivation and memory, which are key elements in the transition from experimentation to addiction. Drugs not only stimulate this part of our brain, they overload it.

The impairment of choice begins when dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s system of reward-related learning. This system has an important role in sustaining life because it links activities needed for human survival (such as eating and sex) with pleasure and reward. As I mentioned above, addiction hijacks the part of our brain that is responsible for survival and what Lisa is feeling and the priorities that she prescribes to it are not what she thinks; not “love” but a symptom of a mental disorder.

So ends this discussion, and the easy part of addiction to explain. Addiction is progressive, and it gets messy. I will present information later on the progression of addiction. Thank you for reading.

About the author

John has been in the substance abuse field since 2001, working at The Life Change Center since November of 2005. He gained his graduate degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. He is an accreditation surveyor for CARF International. He is driven by the belief that all people have the ability to change their lives, and he believes that the potential of Medication Assisted Treatment is just beginning to be realized.

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