The organic effects of dopamine and the brain’s reward system

The Butler Center for Research –

Advances in neuroscience, psychology, and biology have shed light on the ways that long-term use of alcohol and other drugs change the brain to foster continued and chronic patterns of compulsive drug abuse. When someone in today’s society speaks of drug abuse, people think illicit street drugs like heroin, crack cocaine and oxycontin. But it is important to remember that things like regular table sugar are also drugs which stimulate dopamine.

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These efforts have not only helped redefine addiction as a disease but have increased professional understanding of the underlying neurobiology that influences the progression from casual first-time use to chronic abuse that often leads to harmful, long-term consequences. the understanding of the effects of these substances on key brain areas throughout this progression has informed and guided behavioral and pharmacological treatments, further defining addiction as a treatable disease.

How long does cognitive impairment due to drug abuse last?

All drugs of abuse, when taken for extended periods of time, produce long-term dysfunction in the way the brain processes information, and the severity of the dysfunction is related to the frequency and duration of drug use. It is commonly known in the chemical dependency and mental health fields that a young person’s brain is not fully developed until they reach the age of 25 years old.

Over time, abstinence and active participation in treatment programs can drastically improve cognitive function impairments related to prolonged drug abuse. The dopamine reward system has been known, in some patients, to repair itself depending on how severely it was damaged by the person using the drugs as well as the person’s pathology in question.

Why are drugs more addictive than natural rewards?

Drugs of abuse can release approximately 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine compared to natural rewards and are therefore more effective in stimulating the brain’s reward system. The brain’s natural reward system is a very delicate, microscopic portion of a person’s brain. Years and years of heavy abuse by certain chemicals can and will effect life time changes within this delicate system.

The effects of drugs of abuse can also be immediate (e.g., when smoked or injected) and are longer lasting than the effects produced by behaviors that are naturally rewarding. The efficiency of drugs of abuse in activating the reward system results in strong motivation to continue to take drugs and a lack of motivation to engage in behaviors that are not drug related.

The brain after initial and early substance abuse

brain_dopamineIndividuals use drugs of abuse for a variety of reasons, but the euphoric feelings and intense pleasure associated with being “high” are the most frequently reported. It has long been established that this feeling is due to the drugs effect on brain areas that regulate and reinforce natural rewards that are vital to our existence, such as food and sex.

These brain areas, collectively referred to as the brain’s reward system (or the mesolimbic dopamine system), are connected by neurons (i.e., brain cells) that originate in a structure deep within the brain called the ventral tegmental area. Dopamine released by the ventral tegmental area acts as a chemical messenger that signals the activation of neurons located in the nucleus accumbens, a structure often referred to the brain’s “pleasure center” due to its influence on motivation and reward.

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