Experts in the field of drug and alcohol addiction have known for many years that when a person is experiencing addiction, his or her brain continues to be stimulated by whatever he or she is addicted to. And that activation is so strong that the addiction becomes the sole focus of one’s life to the exclusion and detriment of other life-activities. Experts have also known that addiction usually shows a significant increase in dopamine in the brain as well as the presence of glutamate, the brain’s excitatory chemical. However, in a recent research study, the drug reward pathway has been identified for the first time.
Drug Reward Pathway
Experts were able to identify that the stimulation of the glutamate neurons in a specific region of the brain in turn activates the dopamine-containing neurons in the brain’s reward circuit. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter whose receptors are important for communication, memory formation, and learning.
As mentioned previously, in other blog articles, foreign substances such cocaine or methamphetamine affect the ability for neurons to communicate with one another. If the brain can continue to be plastic, that is if new neural connections can continue to form and if old ones can be released, this is can support healthy brain function and mental health. However, the increase or decrease of dopamine in the brain can affect the communication between neurons and affect the functioning of the brain. Of course, the connections between neurons are important in a person’s learning, behavior, and mood regulation.
Furthermore, when a drug enters the brain, it locks onto the receptors and activates the nerve cells. However, because the drug is not the neurotransmitter that is intended for that receptor, the neurons end up sending abnormal messages throughout the brain. Of course, this leads to hallucination, abnormal thoughts, and change in perception.
Brain Is Stimulated by Addictive Behavior
Yet this study didn’t necessarily focus on how certain drugs affect the brain. Instead, it found the specific neural pathway in the brain that is stimulated by addictive behavior. And it’s important to point out here that addiction, as well as the stimulation of the brain, can take place with or without drugs or alcohol. An addiction to gambling, sexual activity, shopping, and other behaviors can also create that activation in the brain.
National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow made the following comment about the research study and its results: “These findings help us better understand the brain’s reward circuitry and opens up new avenues of research into the neurobiology of drug addiction.”
In fact, the following points indicate just how large of an impact that neural pathway of excitation in the brain can have on someone with an addiction:
- Taking a recreational drug causes a surge of dopamine, which trigger feelings of pleasure, and in turn, creates more need for the drug.
- Once addicted, the brain requires that substance to the point of needing it like you would need other survival behaviors, such as eating and drinking.
- Changes in your brain interfere with your ability to think clearly, exercise good judgment, control your behavior, and feel normal without drugs.
- No matter what substance you’re addicted to, the importance of having that substance in your life on a regular basis becomes more important than friends, family, career, and health.
- The yearning to use becomes so strong that your mind will find numerous ways to deny the addiction and underestimate the severity of the addiction.
Knowing the pathway of excitation in the brain can lead to further research, improved drug and alcohol treatment, as well as enhance preventative measures against development of addictions. It’s known that although addiction doesn’t develop in everyone, if it is present, an addiction can get out of control. For this reason, studies such as the one described here can save lives.