In the past four decades, drug addictions have become a tremendous but taboo disease in America. According to a study by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health published in Science, death rates from drug overdoses in the U. S. have been growing exponentially since they were first reported in their own category in 1979 and are expected to continue on this same rising curve for years to come. Senior author Donald S. Burke, M. D. , the Pitt Public Health dean explains that while trying to find the root of the epidemic, his team hit a dead end. They found that although use in certain drugs like Cocaine, Methadone are decreasing, other drugs like Methamphetamine and both synthetic and prescribed opioids are increasing.
When looking at demographics such as race, age, gender and geographic location they also found many variants which didn’t lead to an easy explanation of the increase. Burke and his researchers, however, have a few theories that an increase in feelings of purposelessness and increase of drug availability could be feeding the epidemic. Still, Burke remains hopeful, saying “If we understand and address these root causes at the same time that we take on the opioid crisis, we should be able to curb the epidemic for good. ” But what causes an addiction in the first place? This question can be answered by the biochemistry that makes up all human brains. In the 1930’s when researches began studying additions, they believed that addiction was cause by a lack of willpower because the subject was fundamentally flawed morally but since then modern neurobiology has revealed that addiction is a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function, effecting the brain in three ways: craving the addiction, loss of control of use, and continuing usage despite negative consequences. It all begins with the neurotransmitter called dopamine.
Dopamine is released into the Nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the Cerebral Cortex or as neuroscientists call it “the brain’s pleasure center”, whenever humans experience any pleasure, even with things so simple as buying a candy bar. Addictive drugs corrupt this system by creating a shortcut to the Nucleus accumbens by flooding the brain with dopamine faster than in any natural pleasures. Because of this the Hippocampus, the part of the brain that creates memories, memorizes the rapid feeling of satisfaction and the Amygdala makes a habituated response to this new stimulant. This new stimulation can happen with and any pleasure, for example alcohol, but with drugs the connection between the dopamine and the Hippocampus is stronger because of the speed, intensity and reliability of the release of dopamine.
In fact, Harvard Health explains “Smoking a drug or injecting it intravenously, as opposed to swallowing it as a pill, for example, generally produces a faster, stronger dopamine signal and is more likely to lead to drug misuse. ” So the more intense the pleasure, the more satisfaction the brain feels. Excess dopamine not only creates an intense amount of pleasure but also effects the brain’s learning and memory. This is where the desire becomes an addiction. The dopamine interacts with glutamate, to control the brain’s reward-related learning system. This system, when working properly, relates activities needed for human survival to pleasure and reward, motivating humans to do what they need to survive, but addictive drugs stimulate this system too. After the first few times the pleasure from addictive drugs is experienced, the brain rewires itself to include drugs as part of “survival” because the nerve cells in the Nucleus accumbens and the Prefrontal Cortex, the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks, to communicate in a way that turns liking something with needing it.
The euphoric sensation of addictive drugs doesn’t last forever. Because these drugs can produce two to ten times as much dopamine as natural pleasures do, the brain receptors aren’t accustomed to that much dopamine regularly, so they become overwhelmed and the brain begins to produce less natural dopamine. In even more extreme cases the brain eliminates dopamine receptors all together, but either way this adaption of the brain makes all pleasures, natural and drug-induced less pleasurable. The brain still seeks the pleasure but because of the tolerance to the drug it must have higher and higher quantities to attain the original feeling, but nothing quite fills it. The brain is left wanting something it can never again reach.
Since the Hippocampus and the Amygdala still associate certain environmental cues with the drug’s pleasure, even seeing something that reminds the brain of the drug can cause an intense craving or even relapse into addiction after the pleasure is gone, similar to Pavlov’s drooling dogs. The drugs that create an addiction all have one thing in common; they are alkaloids. Alkaloids contain “at least one nitrogen atom in an amine-type structure—i. e. , one derived from ammonia by replacing hydrogen atoms with hydrogen-carbon groups called hydrocarbons. ” In other words, alkaloids are a category of natural chemicals that are derived from various types of plants such as poppies, cacao beans, potatoes and cauliflower.
Although many alkaloids are beneficial in various medicines, separated from their respective plant the alkaloids form many addictive compounds including Caffeine, Nicotine, Cocaine, Morphine, and synthetic alkaloids include LSD and Heroin. It is theorized that certain plants began to produce these chemicals as a type of natural pesticide. This theory was unknowingly introduced around fifty years ago by biologists Paul R. Ehrlich and Peter H. Raven in their paper Butterflies and Plants: A study in coevolution in the journal Evolution. Their paper explained how plants use compounds as defensive molecules and that butterflies and certain plants (plants containing alkaloids) live in a coevolutionary relationship.
So, if the butterflies evolved to resist the chemical in those plants, the plants would evolve, creating a stronger chemical. These chemicals target proteins not only affect the physiology in the nervous system of butterflies and other insects, but humans as well because all nervous systems share similar molecular properties. Each of these chemical compounds effect the brain differently. Although many of these chemical compounds are either toxic or psychoactive, most of the addictive drugs that have caused the drug epidemic come from plants that create alkaloids. Even though many addictive drugs have been used for thousands of years, only in the last few decades have scientist researched ways to end addiction because for so long it was believed that addictions come from psychological problems not neurological problems. A recent study from the University of Bath suggests that the cure for drug addiction involve treating the memory process.
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