The Role of Dopamine in Addiction

The Role of Dopamine in Addiction

What is the role of dopamine in addiction? Dopamine is a substance that helps your brain reinforce positive behaviors that benefit you. This includes doing great work, getting high school grades, and so on. Whenever you accomplish something big or significant, you will get a dopamine boost that signals how good you’ve done. This can be due to something big like becoming the president of your country or buying your first house. Sometimes it can be due to simply completing your errands for the day.

The danger comes when you take drugs that can elicit the same feelings of accomplishment and success. With drugs, you actually don’t go through the hardships required to succeed. According to the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse — Nora Volkow, M.D. — the most dangerous drugs are those that increase dopamine like achievement does.

What Is Dopamine?

Whenever people talk about the biological mechanisms behind addiction or substance use disorder, you’re bound to hear about the flood or surge of dopamine. This occurs whenever a substance of abuse is taken. However, exactly what does this mean? You should first know what dopamine is in order to find out the link between dopamine and drug usage.

First and foremost, dopamine is a neurotransmitter. A neurotransmitter is a naturally occurring chemical in the body, particularly the brain. It sends specific messages between brain cells or neurons that are essential for the brain’s reward system. These messages aren’t just responsible for encouraging your body to engage in survival behavior. They are also crucial for various mental and physical functions.

Mental Effects of Dopamine

  • Motor Function: Dopamine can assist in your body’s ability to move or locomotion.
  • Problem Solving: Dopamine affects your ability to solve problems or find solutions to problems.
  • Incentive Salience: Dopamine helps in the process of you desiring something or having the feeling of “want”.
  • Planning: Dopamine influences your ability to plan or organize your activities and thoughts in order to achieve a long-term goal.
  • Working Memory: Dopamine plays an important role in guiding you to engage in the right behavior or make the right decisions as you go about life.

More Mental Effects of Dopamine

  • Attention Control: Dopamine can help you control your ability to choose what to pay attention or focus to. It also controls what you choose to ignore.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: If you’re cognitively flexible then that means you have an excellent ability to switch between thinking about two different things or multiple things at roughly the same time or at fast succession. This is all about your ability to multitask.
  • Inhibition Control: It’s your ability to control yourself or exhibit self-control. Like having the control to stop overeating or watching television because you know you have higher priority goals to accomplish like attending school or going to work tomorrow morning.
  • Associative Learning: Dopamine makes this sort of responsive behavioral conditioning possible. Similar to positive reinforcement, the more a behavior is associated with pleasure or positive thoughts and emotions, the more you’ll be conditioned to that behavior.

Pleasure-Related Effects of Dopamine

In addition, dopamine also produces these effects:

  • Pleasure: Dopamine is an element in the feeling of pleasure, liking something, or the ability to experience something in an enjoyable manner or positive way.
  • Reward-Related Cognition: Dopamine influences your ability to act, plan, and reason for the sake of getting a reward or getting feelings of pleasure from the brain (i.e., what dopamine is most known for).
  • Positive Reinforcement: The more you experience the pleasurable stimulus that floods you with dopamine the more you’d want to experience it again. Positive reinforcement encourages such behavior in the first place.

When your brain’s production of dopamine becomes dysfunctional because of drugs, bodily functions can become impaired as well. Some of them might even worsen your already developing addictive behaviors (like when you lose your inhibition or associate drug-taking as an achievement).

Biological Mechanisms of Addiction

Brain neurons concept and human intelligence medical symbol represented by an open thinking organ with active neuron group with inside cell activity by neurotransmitters showing memory and cognitive health.

What happens to dopamine levels whenever someone abuses alcohol or drugs? When you consume addictive substances, up to 10 times dopamine floods your body. With higher dopamine levels, your brain starts to link this substance with a huge neurochemical reward right from the first dose. This is what you feel when you have sex with an attractive partner or eat a premium rib-eye steak.

As discussed above, dopamine floods have an association with survival behavior. However, because chemicals are part of the mind’s reward system, drugs or alcohol can cheat the system and perpetuate their use even though they’re not needed for survival. Some of them can influence your flood of dopamine directly as substances.

The more drugs or alcohol you consume over time, the more your brain believes this artificial dopamine high is due to those. This encourages repeat use of the substance. It also tells the brain to decrease or stop altogether the natural production of dopamine, depending instead on the dopamine increases induced by your drug-taking. Soon enough, the only time an addict is able to feel the feeling of pleasure is when they’re drinking or taking drugs.

Because dopamine production is impaired through drug use, the addict won’t be able to feel normal without the substance. They’ve normalized the use of it and the brain won’t be able to produce dopamine without it. The only way out is to enter rehab, which helps the brain re-learn without substance abuse and addiction. Addiction further reinforces the abuse of alcohol and drug.

Drugs and The Reward System

The link between using drugs and rewarding feeling of a dopamine flood can be impactful to the addict in question. For instance, cocaine addicts who watch videos of other people snorting coke (fairly common in edgy adult movies) will end up with dopamine increases as well as more cravings to use coke.

Which substances increase dopamine output? Drugs like heroin, stimulants, and cocaine as well as substances like alcohol can increase the reward sensation rewarded or the brain’s dopamine output in various ways. These agents don’t only boost your dopamine supply or the feelings of pleasure induced by it. They also change the way the dopamine production system functions, leading to more powerful cravings. They cause a downward spiral of you chasing the high even as you keep on getting desensitized by your substance of choice.

Although many addictive drugs change the way that the dopamine release process functions in your brain, their mechanisms are different. There are drugs that bypass the flow of neurotransmitters and act directly on brain receptors to alter the resulting signals and induce a high. Other drugs change the flow of neurotransmitters to induce the same general result, even though that high will also vary.

The truism of how it’s better to have an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure rings true in the case of addiction. Why? It’s because for substance abusers and/or addicts, the long-term effects of drug abuse or alcoholism can cause permanent changes to the brain. These changes can last for their lifetime. The substances that previously merely stimulate dopamine production are now normalized and necessary to feel pleasure or pretty much anything positive. The brain cannot produce dopamine on its own anymore.

Addiction and How to Recover From It

Repeated usage of drugs typically ends up with someone who isn’t able to control their ability to decide the amount of drug or alcohol usage and/or frequency of consumption. They’ve lost control of themselves. They no longer have self-control or inhibition. The desensitization phenomenon that reduces the effectiveness of the same dosage of drugs (and should normally help someone stop using drugs) instead pushes people to consume higher amounts to chase the high. Addiction refers to this intense need to compulsively consume substances without restraint.

Drugs like cocaine can trick your brain into thinking that it accomplished a lot. Once you are addicted to a substance, you need to constantly take it in order to feel normal even though you don’t really need it. It’s accomplishment in a bag or a pill and so forth. In turn, rehab centers like Lanna Rehab knows how to deprogram someone who has conditioned himself via drug addiction to substances like cocaine to associate taking drugs with good, rewarding things even though he isn’t really doing something productive.

Dopamine, Addiction, and Brain Imagery Studies

Concept of human intelligence with human brain on blue digital background

Drug abuse or alcoholism forces large floods of dopamine extracelullarly in the nucleus accumbens or the limbic areas. Brain imaging studies show a link between reward and drug use. This explains the high or euphoria people can get from drug consumption. There’s also reward saliency, which appears to be pushed by the unexpectedness or novelty of drug use. All of these work hand-in-hand to put users in the slippery slope of addiction.

Imaging studies of the brain paints a clear picture of the link between dopamine and drug use. This helped expose the complex story of dope in the addiction process. Researchers observed neurochemical and metabolic processes, drug-abuse-induced dopamine changes, and plastic changes with brain dopamine and how it can end up with functional problems with addicts. Long-term dopamine imbalance due to substance abuse leads to metabolic and functional changes as well.

Positron emission tomography (PET) studies show that intravenously administrated stimulants can cause quick dopamine changes compared to slower surges from oral dosing. The speed by which a drug enters the brain affects the degree to which it is reinforced. The faster a drug enters the brain, the likelier it will lead to addiction and reinforcement. As examples, smoking tobacco or other substances tend to induce rapid dopamine surges.

PET studies on long-time cocaine and marijuana abusers as well as alcoholics show reduced activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, cingulated gyrus, and orbitofrontal cortex of the brain. This is connected with the dopamine decrease as well as receptor density and striatum reduction. Cravings are severe in alcoholics because of this. There’s also induced cue-activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and cingulated gyrus as well.

Other Interesting Data About Dopamine

Researchers discovered that the drugs most commonly abused not only mimic but greatly surpass the normal and organic physiological phasic firing of dopamine. The drug and its effects hijack the normal pathways that release dopamine. When an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic are intoxicated, there are synaptic increases on both their neurotransmitters. However, only a minority end up as addicts and engage in compulsive addiction behavior.

Researchers then propose that the few people who are susceptible to addiction experience changes involving conditioning circuitry, memory, saliency, motivation, reward, and other neuroadaptations of the dopamine release process. Evidence also suggests that exposure to stimulants, nicotine, or opiates produce persistent adaptive alterations in the brain regions’ dendric trees. These are where you would find the mind’s reward circuitry. Most individuals resist addiction or might take more abuse before they can become addicts.

Patients who engage in substance abuse of multiple agents such as meth, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol all have dopamine 2 receptor density reductions in striatum, which includes the nucleus accumbens. This reduction will persist months after they’ve undergone detoxification so recovery takes time. This is probably why relapse is so common after rehab even after you’ve detoxified your body. The craving remains.

More Interesting Info About Dopamine

Dopamine impairment also affects the amygdala, dorsal striatum, and hippocampus. These are the brain regions responsible for conditioning, habit formation, and memory. Moreover, patients who enjoy drugs tend to have lower dopamine receptor levels compared to those who don’t get pleasure from them. This implies that one’s dopamine receptor density affects one’s vulnerability to substance abuse.

Those with denser dopamine receptors or a greater supply of natural dopamine are more resilient against addiction. The theory is that patients with higher metabolism of dopamine in areas of the cingulated gyrus and orbitofrontal cortex can dampen frontal circuits involved in the inhibitory control and salience of limbic areas. In other words, some brains are less affected by drugs. They might even reject drugs outright because their brain structure makes taking drugs unpleasant.

There are implications in treatment with having a deeper understanding of the role of dopamine in substance abuse. These include strengthening frontal inhibition and executive control. Weakening the motivation drive of an addict to use drugs while dampening conditioned behavior patterns is also key. Lastly, decreasing the reward value of the chosen drug is important. These exact goals can then be accomplished using non-pharmacologic and pharmacologic treatment options found in rehab centers like Lanna.

The Bottom Line

Addiction and dependency concept as a human brain being lured and surrounded by fishing hooks as a risk symbol and metaphor for a drug addict or the danger of alcoholism gambling and drug abuse smoking as a mental health problem.

Dopamine encourages you to engage in more of that success-driven behavior. Personal milestones like losing weight, getting buff, or marrying the man or woman of your dreams can get sidetracked. Nature uses dopamine to condition humans to perform favorable behaviors that are important for survival or unleashing potential. Even behaviors such as sex and eating lead to dopamine increases.

It takes hard work and much social support to recover from alcoholism or drug addiction. If you’re undergoing rehab, you need a strong support system. You also need to give yourself generous time to regain your self-control. The condition doesn’t develop overnight and it required tons of consumption to develop. Hence, it takes a lot of time to undo your addiction and let your brain recover its normal dopamine production.

Let Lanna Rehab Treat Your Ephedrine Addiction

The Lanna Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Center in Chiang Mai can help because it is one of Thailand’s fastest-growing establishments dedicated to rehabilitation. Furthermore, the center understands the role of dopamine or the brain’s reward system.

Lanna Rehab is Thailand’s premier addiction recovery program that can give you the tools and support you need in order to holistically overcome your addiction and return to your drug-free and sober life without being burdened by the sickness known as substance use disorder. Call them today for booking info and price quotes. Achieve sobriety ASAP!

Martin Peters

Martin Peters has a BA (Hons) Dip HE Dip RN CSAT III and is the Group Program Director Lanna Healthcare. He is a Registered Nurse and Certified Substance Abuse Therapist working in the mental health field since 1994; Martin has had a wide range of experience in management and supervisory roles within established healthcare systems, and has provided consultancy services to a number of private and public sector organizations in the UK and Asia in terms of management, policy writing, accreditation and recruitment. Martin’s addictions experience has been in developing inpatient services in Thailand since 2009, both clinical and operational. He has been instrumental in expanding and developing a non 12 step inpatient treatment centre and opening a further inpatient centre with a 12 step approach, implementing KIPU Electronic Records, strengthening hospital partnerships, introducing a Scholarship for students under the Masters in Addiction Studies Program at The ASEAN Institute for Health Development and working with an international accreditation body. Martin has also been a speaker at several international conferences on addiction, including ASEAN conferences and has also guest lectured at Mahidol University (Thailand), University of Sarghoda (Pakistan) Institute of Medical Sciences (Pakistan) and has been a representative on the CARF Standards Advisory Committee for 2016.In 2015. Martin became a Co-Founder of Lanna Healthcare, launching Lanna Rehab in March 2016 and opening Jintra in January 2018. In June of 2018, Martin was involved in the merger of Lanna and DARA, becoming Thailand's biggest private licensed operator. Martin is currently a Joint and Asia Health Co Ltd Owner Operator of Lanna Healthcare Co Ltd, which under its umbrella manages Lanna Rehab in Chiang Mai, Jintra Rehab in Chiang Mai and DARA Rehab in Koh Chang - all Thailand MoPH Licensed Addiction Facilities providing world-class treatment in Thailand.



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