The Target Organ of Addiction
From Being Sober
The disease of alcoholism and drug addiction affects one of our more precious organs; the midbrain (more appropriately called the survival, or reptilian, brain), an area located just below the upper, or thinking, brain. It is called the reptilian brain because it is the only brain that reptiles have and the only brain they have ever needed to survive for hundreds of millions of years. The midbrain dictates survival behaviors; to move away from danger and toward foods; to breathe, in and out; to eat and to rid the body of the waste products; and, of course, to procreate. These survival behaviors require reinforcement so that they’re repeated over and over again by generations to perpetuate the species. That reinforcement comes in the form of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that, when released by the brain, simply makes us feel great.
When we’re parched, we seek water, knowing how good those first gulps of cool water will feel. When we experience orgasm through sexual intercourse, we’re encouraged to procreate. These pleasurable feelings are directly related to the midbrain, which encourages us to repeat behaviors that feel good and to avoid those that don’t.
Drug of of abuse affect the midbrain by causing it to release 2 to 10 items more dopamine than natural rewards do. If we’re smoking or injecting our drug, the effects can be immediate and long lasting. At first, the “high” is bigger, better, and stronger than the natural high most of us get from pleasurable activities. Our brain rewards us for using drugs, and, drawn to the dopamine, we do it again and again.
Over time, our brain, overwhelmed by repeated surges in dopamine and other neurotransmitters, adapts. It either produces less dopamine or reduces the number of receptors that can receive dopamine signals. Our natural supply of dopamine plummets, and we have a hard time feeling pleasure from normal activities. At this point, we need to take drugs just to feel normal. If we want to feel the high we once felt, we need to take larger amounts of the drug than we first did-an effect known as tolerance.
The result is addiction, a condition that keeps us drinking and drugging even after our behavior has started to make us feel bad and negatively affect others.
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