If you are from my generation, you remember the 80’s anti-drug campaign from Partnership for a Drug Free America.
“This is your brain,” says the announcer holding up an egg. “This is your brain on drugs,” he continues in an overly serious tone as he cracks the egg and sizzles it in the frying pan. “Any questions?”
Most of us thought it was funny, but it did little if anything to change our behavior back then. Despite the campaign’s effort, thousands of people still die from drug overdoses and alcohol complications each year. Why do so many people keep using if they know drugs will ‘fry their brain?’
Here is the simple answer.
The Reward Circuit in the Brain
You may have heard drugs hijack the reward circuit in the brain. This circuit is in the brain’s limbic system. It functions to bring us feelings of pleasure when we experience things beneficial to our survival like eating, drinking, love or sex. Drugs over-activate this reward circuit which causes the ‘high’ or euphoric feeling. Drugs can release up to ten times the dopamine than natural rewards like eating or exercise.
Not only that but natural rewards usually require some effort. For instance, when I work out, I get an influx of dopamine and serotonin which makes me feel pretty good. However, to get the reward I must get off the couch, put on my gym clothes and move around enough to get my heart rate up for an extended period. Eating a cheeseburger requires way less effort and the payoff feels better in the moment which is why I sometimes make this choice instead. Which reward is better for me in the long run? I think you get the idea.
You can’t Change a Pickle back to a Cucumber
What is even more frightening is that drugs can literally change the brain over time. The longer the use, the harder it is to change it back. Hence the adage ‘you can’t change a pickle back to a cucumber.’ Some doctors have even said that overuse can destroy some of the reward circuits in the brain and wreak havoc with the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain responsible for decision making, which means stopping becomes more difficult with each use.
Tolerance, Dependence and Withdrawal
Then there is that annoying problem of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal. Because drugs overactive the reward pathway, the brain will start to adapt to the overwhelm by producing less dopamine. Then we need more and more of the substance to get the same effect. That’s called tolerance. The problem is that not only do we need more of the substance to get the same ‘high,’ we may soon need the drug just so we don’t feel bad. This is when tolerance becomes dependance. Now we need to take the drug just to feel normal, rather than the effect we once took it for. Our ‘friend’ has now become our enemy. We thought we had ‘it,’ and now it has ‘us.’ We are no longer in control. We must maintain our usage or withdrawal will occur. Physical withdrawal can be very painful and even deadly in the case of alcohol and benzodiazepines.
We can also experience psychological withdrawal if we have used the substance to ‘be social,’ ‘unwind,’ or ask someone out…which is hard to do sober!
What is even more devastating about addiction is that the things we once loved, the things that used to give us pleasure, don’t seem interesting anymore. That is why addiction can cause us to abandon relationships and hurt the people we care about. And since addiction is a progressive disease, it doesn’t get better. It only gets worse unless we get help.
Addiction is complex. There are many other causes and ways it impacts us and those around us. But in a nutshell, that is your brain on drugs.