Thursday, June 1, 2017

Addiction: Meet Dopamine, the Life or Death Chemical

"To be scientifically literate is to empower yourself to know when someone else is lying."
--Neil deGrasse Tyson
Dr. Nora Volkow, head, National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Understanding the Brain’s Reward System

When a person partakes in a pleasurable activity – be it a sexual encounter, a delicious meal, a monetary gain or even taking a mood-altering drug – the brain processes these different types of pleasure in the same way. Each of these pleasurable encounters cause a release of of the neurotransmitter dopamine  into a cluster of nerve cells just below the cerebral cortex, called the nucleus accumbens. Because this part of the brain is so closely tied to pleasure, it is often referred to as the brain’s reward or pleasure center.

The reward system is present in the brain to ensure that humans repeat life-sustaining activities such as eating food, drinking water and mating. When people take drugs or drink alcohol, however, it basically sends the system into overdrive.

(Dopamine also plays a key role in body movement. Death of dopamine-producing cells is implicated in Parkinson's disease.)

The Effects of Drug Abuse on the Reward System

Drugs cause a massive surge of dopamine in the brain – far more than one would experience during a meal or other natural rewards. The amount of dopamine released by drugs is usually 2 to 10 times higher than natural rewards, and the “feel good” sensation usually lasts much longer.  Drugs also cause the brain to release dopamine much more quickly than a natural reward as well.
There are three main factors that contribute to the likelihood of a drug being addictive which are as follows:
  • The speed with which it promotes dopamine release.
  • The intensity or strength of the dopamine release.
  • The reliability of the dopamine release.
This is why the most addictive drugs of abuse are often smoked or injected – the drug makes its way to the brain much faster and with a great intensity. In turn, it promotes a rapid, intense burst of dopamine – giving the body such a high “feel good” sensation that the brain simply wants more of it once it starts to wear off. And because the pleasure is so much greater than that of natural rewards, the brain begins to want more and more of it to produce the same feeling – after all, that part of the brain exists to encourage humans to repeat activities that trigger the release of dopamine.

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Praise for Healing the Brain
"A book that can help medical professionals as well as the general public, Mr Balog has tackled a subject that is complex and he makes it quite approachable. It has added and enriched my own practice of medicine by making me more aware of issues not often discussed in medical circles."--Peter Paganussi, MD, Virginia

"Author David Balog has done an excellent job of creating a book for educators (or anyone working with youth) that explains the complicated workings of the brain in an easy to understand manner. Balog goes on to discuss various types of trauma and how the adolescent brain responds to trauma such as depression, stress, addiction, risk taking, PTSD, etc. LGBT/Q youth may experience trauma in ways majority youth often do not. The author shares important coping strategies....I highly recommend this book!"--Carol Dopp, M.Ed. 

"David Balog understands the strain of alienation, so he tackles this subject with compassion and concern. Mr. Balog draws on his knowledge of brain science to give readers insight into what happens to young people under tremendous stress, and he offers practical advice on how to help and cope."--Gary Cottle, author

"Provides comfort and learning to the reader. Flows easily from one topic to the next and knits tidbits of information together in a unifying mosaic. Easy to read. Difficult to put down." --Michael J. Colucciello, Jr., New York State Dept. of Mental Health researcher, retired.

"Well researched, fleshed out with relevant case histories, this book packs a lot of solid information into its 152 pages. Written in an engaging style for the layman, it covers a wide range of topics. One learns a great deal about the biology of stress, particularly the vulnerability of the brain in the pre-adult years. This book also provides a glossary of key brain science terms and a listing of organizations serving the LGBT /Q community and resources on the brain."--Gary Bordzuk, librarian

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