“Most Americans know someone with a substance use disorder, and many know someone who has lost or nearly lost a family member as a consequence of substance misuse. Yet, at the same time, few other medical conditions are surrounded by as much shame and misunderstanding as substance use disorders.” – Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health
We tend to have some common understandings about addiction. For example, most people recognize that addiction can happen to anyone. We also see some who are able to overcome or prevent this addiction and may wonder why others have a more difficult time. It is often mistakenly assumed that drug abusers lack willpower or moral principles or that they could simply stop using. The reality is that drug addiction is a complex disease. Drugs change the brain. Brain science has allowed us insight into how drugs work in the brain and have led to advances in addiction treatment.
Drugs are chemicals that impact the communication system of the brain. Drugs such as marijuana and heroin activate neurons by fooling receptors to allow them to attach onto neurons. Because the drug chemicals don’t activate the neurons as a natural neurotransmitter, they cause abnormal messages to be sent through the brain’s communication network. Drugs like cocaine and amphetamines cause the neurons to release large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal brain chemical cycles.
Drugs produce a sense of pleasure because they target the brain’s reward system – flooding the communication and neurotransmitter system with dopamine (a neurotransmitter that is present in the brain in areas that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings). The overstimulation produces euphoric effects, which reinforce the drug use. This teaches the user to repeat it. Drugs are more addictive than natural rewards because they release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine.
“By adopting an evidence-based public health approach, America has the opportunity to take genuinely effective steps to prevent and treat substance-related issues.” - Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health
To learn more about the science of the brain and addiction, join us for part 1 of Change 4 the Kenai’s COPE community schools class series (Thursday at 6pm in Soldotna) and check out these other great resources.
References & More Information
National Institute on Drug Abuse
NIDA: For Teens & Teachers
NIDA: Advancing Addiction Science