“… it shouldn’t surprise us that behaviors such as eating or sexual behavior are linked with increases in dopamine and in the same areas that drugs do it.”
~Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
Whenever you read about the biological processes that drive addiction, you come across phrases about the “rush”, “flood”, or “surge” of something called dopamine that happens when someone abuses alcohol or drugs.
But what does that actually MEAN?
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. This means that it is responsible for sending messages between brain cells. Although it is a naturally-occurring chemical substance, external factors – drugs, alcohol, stress, etc.–affect normal dopamine levels.
What Kinds of Messages Does Dopamine Send?
Dopamine is associated with learning, reward, motivation, and behavioral control. This plays a role in many cognitive processes.
- Motor function– voluntary movement
- Attentional control – the conscious ability to distinguish between what ignore what to pay attention to; the ability to focus
- Inhibitory control – self-control; the ability to choose between right and wrong
- Working memory – a critical component that guides decision-making and behavior
- Cognitive flexibility – the ability to think about several things at once or to switch between thinking about two separate and distinct things
- Problem-solving – the ability to overcome challenges and find solutions
- Planning – the capability for organized goal-related thinking
- Reward-related cognition– a capability for reasoning, planning, and acting in a manner that will be rewarded
- Incentive salience – the ability to want something
- Pleasure – the ability to experience something in a positive/enjoyable manner
- Positive reinforcement– a pleasurable response to a behavior
- Associative learning– the ability to understand relationships such as “cause and effect”
How Does Substance Abuse Affect the Brain’s Dopamine Levels?
When the body’s natural production of dopamine is disrupted because of substance abuse, any or all of these cognitive functions become significantly impaired. This impairment contributes to addicted, drug-seeking behaviors.
When addictive substances are consumed – alcohol, illicit drugs, prescription medications, or inhalants – the release of massive amounts of dopamine is triggered – up to 10 times the normal amount.
Of special relevance, this occurs from the very first initiation of use.
As a result, the brain associates substance use with a powerfully-pleasurable neurochemical reward. Consequently, the behavior – the alcohol or drug use – is strongly reinforced by this reward.
With chronic substance use, the brain is tricked into believing that this artificial, substance-created elevation of dopamine levels is “normal”. So, it reduces – or even completely shuts down –natural dopamine production.
Therefore, the ONLY time that the person experiences feelings of positivity or pleasure is when they are using the addictive substance.
Even more important, because dopamine is no longer being produced naturally, the person is unable to even function or feel “normal” without the presence of that substance.
This is further reinforcement of drugging and drinking behavior.
External Cues Trigger Internal Dopamine Production
The association between the substance and the reward is extremely powerful – almost irresistible.
As an illustration, cocaine-addicted individuals who were monitored as they watched videos of other people using cocaine experienced a significant increase in their own dopamine levels.
Chronic substance abuse results in someone unable to control when they use or drink, or how much they consume. Instead, they themselves are controlled – by their compulsive need to acquire and use their substance of choice.
This is the nature of addiction.
Recovery from a substance abuse disorder takes time, hard work, and a strong personal support system. The addiction did not develop overnight or in just a few days. Likewise, it will take a considerable amount of time – typically months – before natural dopamine production resumes normally.
Teensavers Treatment Centers – Orange County’s premiere addiction recovery program – gives troubled teens and their families the tools and support they need to overcome their addiction. This allows them to return to a healthier life of sobriety, stability, and sanity.
By Albert Fontenot