Understanding How the Brain Reacts to Addictive Substances: It’s a Dopamine Thing

Brigham Young University professor Scott Steffensen and his collaborators have published three scientific papers that detail the brain mechanisms involved with addictive substances.

One study found that the process of a brain becoming addicted is an overcorrecting reaction to an abused substance. When drugs and alcohol release unnaturally high levels of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure system, oxidative stress occurs in the brain. This correction suppresses the brain’s normal production of dopamine long after someone comes down from a high. Not having enough dopamine is what causes the pains, distress and anxiety of withdrawal.

In another study, co-authored by Steffensen and Ph.D. candidates Nathan Schilaty and David Hedges, explains how nicotine and alcohol interact in the brain. Steffensen claims:

“The body attempts to compensate for unnatural levels of dopamine, but a pathological process occurs. We think it all centers around a subset of neurons that ordinarily put the brakes on dopamine release.”

Since dopamine is released by smoking, it makes sense that dopamine levels become abnormal when a smoker chooses to stop smoking also.

Schilaty added:

“Addiction is a huge concern in our society and is very misunderstood. Our research is helping us to formulate ideas on how we can better help these individuals through non-invasive and non-pharmacological means.”

Eun Young Jang, a post-doctoral fellow in Steffensen’s lab, authored a third paper describing the effects of cocaine addiction on the brain’s reward circuitry. Increased oxidative stress was found on neurons in a study of rats using cocaine.

Dopamine is the common thread in all three studies. Dopamine is a brain chemical messenger that is critically important in reward and motivation. The disturbance of dopamine function conceivably makes it that much harder to avoid relapse.

Understanding the brain’s mechanisms helps the development of therapies for successful treatment of addictive substances. Professionals can better equip the addict to be in a position to make rational decisions regarding their behavior and be empowered to remain drug free. Recovery from addiction is possible.