“These mechanisms of dopamine signal reinforcement and once you have experienced it, getting conditioned to it is extraordinary important way for nature to ensure that humans, as well as animals, will perform behaviors that are indispensable for survival. So therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that behaviors such as eating or sexual behavior are linked with increases in dopamine and in the same areas that drugs do it.”
~ Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
Whenever you read about the biological mechanisms behind the disease of addiction, you are bound to encounter phrases such as a “surge” or “flood” of dopamine that occurs whenever a substance of abuse is ingested.
But what does that mean, REALLY?
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a naturally-occurring chemical substance in the body that sends specific messages between brain cells.
What Messages Is Dopamine Responsible for?
The messages that dopamine sends are responsible for a wide variety of bodily functions–
- Motor function – the ability to move
- Attentional control – the ability to choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore
- Inhibitory control – the ability to exhibit self-control
- Working memory – an important part of the guidance of decision-making and behavior
- Cognitive flexibility – the ability to switch between thinking about two different things and to think about multiple things at the same time
- Problem-solving – the ability to find solutions to problems
- Planning – the ability to organize one’s thoughts and activities in order to achieve a goal
- Reward-related cognition– the ability to reason, plan, and act in order to be rewarded/reinforced with feelings of pleasure from the brain
- Incentive salience – “wanting”– the process of desiring something
- Pleasure – “liking”– the ability to experience something in a positive or enjoyable manner
- Positive reinforcement – a pleasurable stimulus that occurs in response to a behavior that increases the frequency of that behavior
- Associative learning – responsive behavioral conditioning
When dopamine production becomes dysfunctional, especially due to substance abuse, these bodily functions can become impaired and contribute to addictive behaviors.
What Happens To Dopamine Levels When a Person Abuses Drugs or Alcohol?
When addictive substances are taken, the body is flooded with up to 10 times the normal level of dopamine. From the very first usage, the brain begins to associate the substance with a huge neurochemical reward. The behavior – the drug/alcohol usage – is reinforced by this reward.
Over time, the brain believes that this artificial elevation of dopamine levels is “normal” and decreases – or stops altogether –natural production. In other words, the ONLY time that the substance abuser is able to experience feelings of pleasure is when they are using the drug/alcohol.
Without natural dopamine production, the substance abuser will not even be able to feel “normal” without the presence of their drug of choice. This further reinforces the drug/alcohol usage.
The drug/reward association can be very powerful. For example, cocaine addicts who merely WATCH videos of other people using cocaine will experience an increase in their dopamine levels.
Repeated drug usage results in a person who can no longer control their ability to decide the frequency and/or amount of usage. They have lost control and are ruled by an intense need to compulsively take the drug.
This is an addiction.
Recovery from drug or alcohol addiction takes hard work, strong support, and time. Just as the disease did not develop overnight, it will take a significant while before dopamine production returns to normal.
Northpoint Recovery– Idaho’s premier addiction recovery program – can give you the support and tools you need to overcome your addiction and return to a life of stability, sanity, and serenity. If you or someone you care about needs help for a drug or drinking problem, make the call today and begin your personal journey of sobriety today.