In order to fully understand the way what happens in an addict’s brain, we need to do a little biology, physiology and anatomy.
So, the brain is divided into two parts (shown in the image below) based on how ‘evolutionally’ developed they are.
The first is the more advanced and recently developed cerebral cortex (blue), while the second is the older and more “primitive” brain stem (yellow). So, in essence, it is the more advanced and developed parts of our brain that gives us the characteristics and behaviors that make us human in the first place. While the primitive parts of the brain give us our “animalistic” tendencies, as we will see below.
In the more primitive region of the brain, we have the brain’s reward system, which plays a crucial role in keeping us alive.
The reward centers are responsible for creating our moods and coloring our emotions. They serve as the headquarters for our most primitive drives, such as those that govern our need for food, power or sex. And most importantly, they are the points where addictions take their roots in the brain.
As you can see, the reward centers of the brain are very important and when alterations occur within this region, it can lead to mental disorders such as social anxiety, depression, etc.
How The Brain Reward System Works
Under normal circumstances, the brain functions as a result of neurochemical interactions between its parts. And in instances where there are changes in the chemical concentrations or structure of the brain’s reward system, there’s bound to be undesirable effects.
Here’s how this works:
As we have established earlier, our reward centers encourages us to engage in activities that are pleasurable, and avoid those that causes us pain. This is because the primitive brain’s mantra in essence is to – survive, avoid pain, and repeat pleasure!
The reward system adapts to activities that it thinks would ultimately lead to survival. This is because the more primitive parts of the brain simply interpret pleasurable activities as promoting survival, regardless of whether or not they are healthy. The truth is that the more primitive regions of the brain are more animalistic in nature. They do not care about health, or morals. All it’s concerned with is survival.
This is why during addictions, the neurochemical interactions between the brain cells in the reward system are out of balance. This will result in problems with decision making, moods and perceptions.
And this very problem is one of the more powerful reasons why it is difficult to change addictions.
In his book, Evolve Your Mind, Dr. Joe Dispenza says, : “For every known element in our life, we have an existing neural representation in the form of people, things, times, places, and events, and each neural representation connects every person, place, thing, time, and event to a specific feeling. We can begin to see why change is difficult. Changing a person, place, thing, time, or event in our life means that we are breaking the neurochemical circuit that we have kept intact by continuous stimulation”
Dopamine & Opioids – The Fuel That Drives The Brain Reward System
When it comes to addictions, there is no other brain chemical that is more important than Dopamine.
Dopamine is the craving chemical in the brain that seems to keep on yelling, ‘I have to get THAT, whatever THAT is’
Dopamine does not care whether ‘THAT’ is good or bad for you!
Dopamine does not even really care about the pleasure or enjoyment we get from an activity/addiction.
Rather, it is released in the brain to put us in a position where we want to do more wanting, seeking, and craving. It’s usually released in anticipation of anything that the brain has been trained to think is good – whether it’s your next meal in the day, the next round of sex, the next shot of cocaine, or the next gambling session!
Linked closely to dopamine is the release of opioids created by the body, which we perceive as feelings of pleasure when we have executed an activity.
So, let’s have an example to drive the point home.
Let’s assume, for instance that you’re very thirsty on a hot, and sunny day. The feeling you get after you drink a cold glass of water involves opioids, which make you satisfied and happy, while dopamine was what induced the craving that made you take the water in the first place.
Generally, opioids make us feel satisfied, and as a result, we should stop craving…
…but that’s not always the case, as the craving which dopamine elicits is always greater than the satisfaction that the opioid system offers.
And I think it makes sense.
After all, we seek more than we are satisfied, and this bores down to the fact that seeking, wanting and craving will more likely keep us alive, than sitting down in a super-satiated stupor.
The craving that dopamine causes motivates us and propels us into action.
It drives us to pursue and keep seeking for reward after reward after reward.
This is why we receive a blast of dopamine and opioids in the brain when we eat cake.
It’s all because the reward centres of the brain recognize that sugar is a source of carbohydrates, which are a necessity for meeting the body’s energy requirements. And because craving is always stronger than satiety, the anticipation brought about by dopamine can easily override the feelings of satisfaction, regardless of the fact that we might feel full, or the need to be more healthy with our diets.
The result of all these is that there is suddenly so much dopamine in the brain’s reward centers causing the individual to be in a continued state of craving and wanting.
Of course, this is not natural!
Is Too Much Dopamine A Good Thing In An Addict’s Brain?
Under normal circumstances, the neurochemicals in the brain are in a balanced state of homeostasis. So, when there is too much dopamine in the brain, there is an upset in the balance in the brain, and as a result, you can expect to see drastic brain changes, which of course will impact the functionality of the brain.
Besides, the presence of dopamine in the brain facilitates the creation of another protein in the brain called DeltaFosB.
You see, chronically high levels of dopamine causes DeltaFosB to build up in the brain for up to 8 weeks, during which it causes the activation of genes that change the structure of the brain. These changes in the brain structure causes even more dopamine to be produced which will lead to the accumulation of even more DeltaFosB proteins which will continue to restructure the brain to produce even more dopamine. Eventually, DeltaFosB facilitates the creation of stronger nerve connections in the brain which remain, even long after DeltaFosB concentrations return back to normal.
This results in very strong nerve connections in an addict’s brain, which are really sensitive to the slightest trigger.
I believe you are beginning to understand why it is difficult to change an addiction overnight.
But it does not end there.
In any kind of addiction, the brain changes in 4 main ways: sensitization, desensitization, hypofrontality, and altered stress responses.
So, let’s start with sensitization.
Sensitization in An Addict’s Brain
The reward centres of the brain is the structure that is primarily affected during sensitization, and as expected – dopamine is the culprit.
Plenty dopamine in the brain causes plenty changes in the brain, causing a rewiring in the brain to want and crave ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is. As a result, the brain starts learning to associate with the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, memories and emotions with the expected reward.
This is because the brain likes to be efficient. It does not like wasting much energy resources. So, when the brain finds something that can be performed more efficiently, it tries to make the activity more automated, so that it can focus energy on other important tasks of the body.
So, the more the brain does this association, the less effort it will take to stimulate the brain’s reward centres to actually get the rewards. This is why when there are triggers that will lead to a reward, the urges and cravings will just rise up almost automatically.
In summary, sensitization helps the brain recognize the activities that are very valuable, making them easy for the brain to carry out effectively the next time…and the time after that…and the one after that too’
Desensitization in an Addict’s Brain
After sensitization, the next thing that happens in an addict’s brain is desensitization.
By the time the addict gets to this stage, everything in his life is boring, except the addictive behavior. This is caused by a chronically low concentration of dopamine and opioids receptors in the brain, as the brain tries to reduce its ability to be sensitive to the abnormally high dopamine concentrations. However, this has a downside, as the addict is unable to derive pleasure from anything other activity in his/her life – except the the addiction itself!
Desensitization manifests as tolerance, where the addict has a numbed pleasure response, needing a higher level of stimuli to achieve the same level of satisfaction attained during the early days of the addictions.
As we’ve earlier established, stimulation in the brain occurs as a result of neurochemicals transmitted from one brain cell to the other. The strength of the stimulus is dependent on the amount of connections between brain cells, the quantity of dopamine produced, and the number of dopamine receptors. A decline in any one of the aforementioned variables would lead to a weak stimulation.
When an addict continues to indulge in dopamine boosting activities, the brain gets tired of all the floods of dopamine.
It’s simple. The brain is about efficiency and survival. It does not like wasting the floods upon floods of dopamine trying to get to the dopamine receptors on the brain reward system.
So, what does the brain start doing?
It starts reducing the number of dopamine receptors, which in turn would lead to a reduction in brain cell connections, which ultimately would lead to inexcitability of the brain’s reward systems.
Hypofrontality in an Addict’s Brain
After desensitization, the brain of an addict undergoes hypofrontality.
You know why we have foreheads?
It is because we have the largest fore-brains among God’s creations.
Unfortunately, addictions cause widespread alterations of the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes are part of the most developed regions of the brain. Humans are able to colonize their environments and have a better standard of living than animals because they have larger frontal lobes.
Unfortunately, with increasing addiction, the nerve connections between the reward circuit (primitive “animalistic” portion of the brain) and the prefrontal cortex (more developed regions of the brain) of the brain become weaker and weaker.
Eventually, there is a general dysfunction in the interaction between the reward centres and the prefrontal cortex, automatically leading to inappropriate impulsive choices, in spite of being fully aware of the potential negative outcomes.
Altered Stress Responses in an Addict’s Brain
Finally, addictions lead to drastic changes to the brain’s stress circuits. The implication of this is that minor, unrelated slight stresses become triggers for the addictive behavior. Feelings like boredom, tiredness, anxiety, and so on immediately triggers the addictive behavior.
In addition, attempts to withdraw from the addiction also activate stress signals which may lead to withdrawal symptoms, which if left unattended to, or may lead to reinforcement of addictive behaviors! Interestingly, since there is a delicate balance between the primitive reward circuit of the brain and the complex frontal lobes, any stress that amplifies the sensitized pathways of the brain would also inhibit the frontal lobes.
I believe that an understanding of how addictions work will play a crucial role in helping us understand how to use them to our advantage and even overcome them.
Do you have any thoughts concerning what you have read?
I will love to hear them done in the comment section below.
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