In response to Amy Winehouse’s tragic death at the age of 27, the New York Times ran a piece on addictive behaviors and what causes addiction. Some of the reasons for addiction which were examined in the article are already well-known by a majority of people including psychological disorders and increased access to addictive drugs because of certain social circles, but the way that extended drug use changes an addict’s brain is what struck me as the most interesting in the article.
Certain drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and alcohol--the ones that people seem to get addicted to the most easily--affect the dopamine receptors of the chronic users of those particular drugs. According to the NYT and my understanding of dopamine receptors, dopamine is kind of like pleasure center for the brain. This is where the explanation of researcher Dr. Nora Volkow gets a little more complicated. From the NYT:
When Dr. Volkow compared the responses of addicts and normal controls with an infusion of a stimulant, she discovered that controls with high numbers of D2 receptors, a subtype of dopamine receptors, found it aversive, while addicts with low receptor levels found it pleasurable.
So, what does Dr. Volkow’s research about drugs and drug addiction actually mean?
In effect, Dr. Volkow’s research means that people who are addicted to heavy narcotics like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol have a much higher threshold for experiencing pleasure in their brains. Often, simple pleasures aren’t enough for them, and they need the extra boost of the drug in their brains to feel pleasure. It’s not just the behavior of taking the drugs that is addictive, but the pleasure that the brain receives from taking certain drugs. And, again, from what I understand about the research, the amount of drugs it takes to reach this level increases over time.
Non-drug-users have a much lower threshold or tolerance for this kind of pleasure. In addition, certain individuals are more genetically predisposed to addiction than others. Of course, there are many other factors which can change a person from a low risk to addiction to a high risk for addiction, which include a person’s environment and their mental health.
What’s also striking about Dr. Volkow’s research and assertions about addiction is how brain imagery actually shows the differences between addicts and non-addicts because of differing neural pathways. This indicates that addiction actually becomes a kind of disease within the addict’s brain.
It’s easiest for teenagers to become addicted to drugs than adults using the same drugs because teenagers’ brains are more susceptible because their brains are more plastic and moldable at that time of their development.