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Drug Addiction and the Brain

It's fairly useful to review the physics of drug and alcohol addiction. Since ten percent of all Americans are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, addiction directly and indirectly affects vast swathes of people. Two out of three addicts abuse alcohol. Chemically speaking, alcohol affects the brain much like cocaine and other illegal substances. Essentially, recreational drugs short-circuit the brain's natural rewards system. Alcohol and drugs cause the brain to release dopamine in the brain's pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens.

Dopamine is a natural chemical released during activities like eating and having sex. However, drugs and alcohol cause dopamine boosts that are two to ten times stronger than natural dopamine actions. One instance of drug usage will not significantly change brain chemistry. However, even single instances of usage cause change. Over time, drug use affects the amygdala, the brain's center for automated "fight or flight" responses. The amygdala creates conditioned responses that can feel virtually impossible to break.

Many people simply don't realize how drugs and alcohol can permanently change their brain chemistry. Although drugs do increase dopamine levels, the brain responds to these unnatural changes by reducing dopamine receptors. As a result, repeat users who want to immediately experience the same drug high have to use increasingly larger amounts. This pattern of usage leads to increased physical side effects and concurrent social and financial problems. When drug users face serious consequences yet fail to curb their own usage habits, society recognizes this state as a state of addiction.

Drugs are more or less addictive depending on how intensely they affect the brain's dopamine system. Chemicals that dispense dopamine quickly and intensely are more likely to create serious addiction problems. Cocaine and meth produce incredibly difficult addictions to overcome.

Academic researchers have learned that addiction contains physical and mental elements. Oftentimes, the learned behaviors of addiction are even more powerful than any physical dependencies. Even after years of drug-free living, addicts are often at risk for relapse. This is due to the fact that the form creates long-lasting memories of intensely pleasurable moments like drug experiences. If more people understand how drugs affect brain chemistry, society can make progress towards combating addiction.

Your Brain on Drugs
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