Understanding Addiction and the Dopamine Reward System
Among other factors, the brain’s dopamine reward system plays a major role in addiction. We explain how this works.
Your brain is the communication centre for your body – it controls what you think, how you feel and what you do. This communication network between your brain and the rest of your body is facilitated by a system of neurons, neurotransmitters, receptors and transporters. A key component of this is the dopamine reward system – an evolutionary development designed to motivate us to do things that ensure our survival.
Your reward system is the reason that enjoyable activities like eating, sex and achievement give you a feeling of pleasure. These activities result in a release of the ‘feel-good’ chemical dopamine. This pleasure reward reinforces the behaviour, eventually developing a pattern. Drugs and alcohol also produce a chemically-induced surge of dopamine, which is why they produce a pleasurable high, but also why they are so addictive. The brain comes to believe that you need your addictive behaviours in order to survive.
Substance abuse rewires your brain’s normal, healthy functioning. As The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains:
“Drugs are chemicals that affect the brain by tapping into its communication system… Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter. This similarity in structure “fools” receptors and allows the drugs to attach onto and activate the neurons. Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being transmitted through the network. Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals. This disruption produces a greatly amplified message, ultimately disrupting communication channels.”
Read the full article here: Drug Abuse, Dopamine and the Reward System Explained.