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Article Summary

Brain and Drug Addiction

Changes in the Brain

The brain and drug addiction causes changes in the user’s brain, which then drives a specific behavior. This behavior happens to be the compulsive use of drugs.  While this compulsive drug use can take a strong hold of the user, addicts can learn to change this destructive behavior. The use of drugs takes affect on their brain in an unnatural way. This is because the chemicals released into the brain when people take drugs have a similar size and shape to the brain’s own natural neurotransmitters. In the right amount or dose, these drugs lock into receptors in the brain and start an unnatural chain reaction of electrical charges, causing neurons to release large amounts of their own neurotransmitter. Some drugs lock onto the neuron and act like a pump, so the neuron releases more neurotransmitter. Other drugs block re-absorption or re-uptake and cause unnatural floods of neurotransmitters.

Recent research shows that addiction involves many of the same brain circuits that govern learning and memory. Long-term memories are formed by activity of brain substances called transcription factors. All perceived rewards, including drugs, increase the concentration of transcription factors in the brain. So repeatedly taking drugs can change the brain cells and make the memory of the pleasurable effects very strong. Even after transcription factor levels return to normal, addicts may remain hypersensitive to the drug and the cues that predict its presence. This can heighten the risk of relapse in addicts long after they stop taking the drug.

All drugs of addiction, such as nicotine, cocaine, and marijuana, primarily affect the brain's limbic system. This is known as the "reward" system. Generally, the limbic system responds to pleasurable experiences by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure. When a person uses a drug of addiction, they experience unnaturally intense feelings of pleasure as the limbic system is flooded with dopamine.

The brain and drug addiction makes changes right away as a result of the unnatural flood of neurotransmitters. Because they sense more than enough dopamine, for example, neurons begin to reduce the number of dopamine receptors. Neurons may also make less dopamine. The result is less dopamine in the brain which is called down regulation. The toxicity of some drugs may even cause neurons die.

There is no set amount of times any one person can take drugs before it begins to change their brain and result in addiction. It is believed that a person's genetic makeup may play a role. After enough doses, an addicted person’s limbic system craves the drug as it craves food, water, or friends. Drug craving is made worse because of down regulation(less dopamine in the brain).

Without a dose of the drug, dopamine levels in the drug abuser's brain are low. The abuser feels flat, lifeless, and depressed. Without drugs, an abuser's life seems joyless. Now the abuser needs drugs just to bring dopamine levels up to normal levels. Larger amounts of the drug are needed to create a dopamine flood or high, an effect known as tolerance.

By abusing drugs, the person has changed the way their brain works. Drug abuse and addiction lead to long-term changes in the brain. These changes cause addicted drug users to lose the ability to control their drug use.

New research on the brain is showing that addiction is a matter of memories, and recovery is a slow process in which the influence of those memories is diminished, reports the January 2007 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. Studies have shown that addictive drugs stimulate a reward circuit in the brain. The circuit provides incentives for action by registering the value of important experiences. Rewarding experiences trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine, telling the brain "do it again." What makes permanent recovery difficult is drug-induced change that creates lasting memories linking the drug to a pleasurable reward.

New Treatments

Knowing more about the brain and drug addiction as of yet has not given us any strikingly effective new treatments, but it has suggested new possibilities while providing a better understanding of how the available treatments work. "The hardest job will be finding substances that lower the risk of addiction but do not interfere with responses to natural rewards," says Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. So far there is little evidence that any one type of therapy works better for addiction than another.

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