Totally Addicted To: The Truth About Addictions
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Totally Addicted To: The Truth About Addictions

Lakshmi Devan
2 min read

Totally Addicted To: The Truth About Addictions

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Is dopamine, the notorious neurotransmitter, really the culprit?

Dopamine is the most notorious of all brain chemicals. It’s fault? It’s related to pleasure, and that automatically connects it to everything ‘wild’ and ‘hedonistic’ – alcohol, drugs, sex, and cupcakes. The last one seemed a little out of place, eh? Well, sometime ago, The Sun did an article, where it stated that cupcakes could be as addictive as cocaine, by causing a surge of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex. True story. In fact, poor dopamine is so infamous that you could stick its name next to anything you don’t like and say it causes addiction, and the poor thing would be a goner. For example, you could say that beetroots cause a dopamine release in the {input a fancy name like primary somatosensory cortex here} and thus, can cause long-term addictions. That’s it, before you know it, beetroots will begin to get banned around the world. They would even feature beetroot addiction in an episode of Intervention, and make documentaries about it.

Dopamine: Guilty or not guilty?

But dopamine does so much more than just ‘turn people into addicts’. Inside the brain, it plays a role in executive functions, motor control, motivation, reinforcement, and secondary functions like lactation, sexual gratification, and nausea.  However, due to its role in stimulating lactation, men taking antipsychotic medication for schizophrenia can experience lactation in a few rare cases. Oh, I always have such fun facts to share! Anyhoo, back to dopamine and how I feel sorry for the needless hullabaloo around it.  Unfortunately, it is not so simple to establish whether dopamine is guilty or not. In the 1930s, when researchers first began to investigate addiction, they started out with the belief that addicts were somehow morally flawed or lacking in willpower. And so, overcoming an addiction, they thought, involved punishing these miscreants or, alternately, helping them develop the will to resist it. Thankfully, today science has made enough progress to recognise addiction as equivalent to a chronic disease, that changes the brain structure and function.

Understanding pleasure

The brain treats all pleasures in the same way, whether it be a satisfying meal, or a psychoactive drug. For the brain, pleasure only means one thing – a production of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain, which is a rich assembly of nerve cells right under the cerebral cortex. Generally, substances like heroin cause an overwhelming rush of dopamine in this area. The addiction to a drug or an activity such as gambling would depend on the speed, intensity, and reliability of this release. The hippocampus lays down memory of this satisfaction, and thus starts the process of addiction. The latest theory states that dopamine interacts with glutamate, another neurotransmitter, to take over the brain centre for reward-related learning. It is this mechanism that is essential for our survival, encouraging us to eat and have sex.

Dopamine is more than the pleasure chemical

Dopamine’s role in pleasure ends after the first few times of addictive use. Many long-term addicts report to deriving little joy from their hit, but still feeling compelled to continue, because of the change in their brain function that ‘wants’ the source of ‘pleasure’, despite getting no more pleasure from it. Dopamine can also accumulate in the nucleus accumbens of people with post-traumatic stress disorder, when they are experiencing heightened vigilance and paranoia. In this case at least, dopamine isn’t just about addiction or reward. Activity in the nucleus accumbens also goes up when a gambler loses by a near miss, as much as when he wins.

So what gets my goat?

It gets my goat to see people simply ascribing the entire world’s problems to dopamine. Dopamine is more than just a pleasure chemical. And by spreading half information, we’re giving people wrong ideas about problems involving dopamine, such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder, that has nothing to do with scandals or raves. Secondly, simplifying an addiction to – “Oh, dopamine did it”, misleads people into wondering why a problem caused by it cannot be solved. But to answer the big question, yes, dopamine is related to addiction, to cupcakes, and to cocaine; to lust and love, and lactation; to movement, motivation, attention, and utter madness. Dopamine has a role in all of these, but it is none of these. Dopamine is more than just a single thing. Dopamine is here to remind us what a single molecule is capable of – making or breaking life.

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