On the Mind: How Addiction Holds Our Brains Hostage

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On the Mind: How Addiction Holds Our Brains Hostage

This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.


Addictive drugs and behaviors stick in our brains. From the positive—love—to the negative—alcohol, gambling and cigarettes—we crave the dopamine and positive neurotransmitters that flood our brain when we get what we want. Over time, with both love and other drugs, our brain adapts in a way that makes the substance boring, old, and typically less pleasurable. Naturally, we seek more reward to meet the same dopamine reaction we first received.

Dopamine regulates movement, emotion, motivation and pleasure in the brain. That’s why it’s so great to fall in love. That’s why gambling wins feel so great at first. That’s why the first sip, first nicotine hit, first abusive drugs seem so positive to start.

Although neuroscientists, biologists and psychologists have learned a great bit about addiction in recent decades, there’s still more to learn. In particular, these researchers from different silos are beginning to pair up across a university or across the country to mix expertise in how to best understand the mind-body connection. New fields such as psychoneuroendocrinology and neuropsychopharmacology have popped up to make these connections in research and tell us where to go next.

Studies Say

When scientists first studied addictions in the 1930s, people thought drug abusers and drinkers were morally flawed. Now that we know about the brain mechanisms of substance use disorders, the views are changing, though slowly. The first step seems to be changing people’s minds about obesity and food addiction, concretely breaking down how sugar, fat and salt affect our body’s reactions, cravings and even gut bacteria. It’s possible to change, researchers say. Now we need to figure out the best way how.

They’re looking at that in different ways — the way we react to stress, the way our brain transmits chemicals, the way our genes differ, and different cognitive behavioral training programs that may help. Essentially, there’s still no straightforward answer yet, and there are many avenues to cover in the ongoing conversation about the addiction and recovery processes.

Key Takeaways

1. Addiction isn’t just a brain thing.

Gone are the days when we thought addiction as a moral failing, and soon gone are the days when we think addiction is merely a response to dopamine. That’s a good start, but there’s much more to it. The microbiota, the gut and the brain may be the big trio to consider in eating and alcohol disorders, several U.S. and Irish scientists concluded in early May. They reviewed 12 studies about microbiota in eating disorders and alcohol use disorders and found that there is a promising link. Cravings, depression and anxiety could be major factors in the gut-brain addiction process, too.

2. Stress makes it worse.

The dopamine addiction system works because it provokes us to create more and more of a behavior or substance to get a reward. And we love rewards. When we’re stressed, in particular, we’re convinced we deserve a treat for the hard work we’ve committed. In fact, studies show stress hormones hijack the brain’s emotional and motivational systems in order to promote cravings and even excessive intake. Think: Comfort food. As high levels of stress continue, and in the case of food cravings and weight gain, it’s an ongoing cycle.

3. Our mental health affects our addictions.

In the past, studies have shown that those with mental disorders or mood disorders may struggle with addiction in particular. Researchers are now studying dual treatments that may help both the depression, for instance, as well as the addiction. A study published in Brazil in May looked at the possibility of pairing cognitive-behavioral therapy with a nicotine patch to help patients stop smoking, along with their mental disorder. The duo seemed to work for some patients, and a combo of therapy, the patch and nicotine gum seemed to work for those with high rates of mental disorder. As researchers learn more, we may find other ways to pair treatments to address several issues controlling our brains.

4. Addiction-like behavior may also be passed to our babies.

Addiction can be genetic, we’ve learned. That’s old news to many people. However, scientists are still learning how that happens, especially with obesity occurring at higher rates and childhood obesity becoming such a problem. A study from early May indicates that a high-fat diet during pregnancy could actually change the way the brain sees food and fat as a palatable source of calories. In the ongoing nature versus nurture argument, we continue to learn that our problems stem from both.

5. We’re still learning how all of this works in the brain.

Countless research projects are focused on the actual mechanisms in the brain that promote addiction and cause the dopamine surge to ebb and flow. Three studies in mid-May looked at particular proteins, genes and particles that may influence addictive behaviors. A randomized controlled trail, for example, looked at a new candidate treatment drug for cocaine addicts and how it preserved brain white matter. Another investigated two calcium channels used for brain development to understand how they’re linked to addiction and other disorders such as bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, autism and ADHD. A third study focused on an immune receptor in the brain and whether toggling it on or off could change the way we drink alcohol, especially the escalation into too much.

Image: Aron Baker, Flickr, CC-BY

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.