Addictive Brain Circuits

What do drugs and addictive behaviors such as sex, internet porn, food, gambling, raging, shopping do for you?

Most addicts have experienced adversity in early childhood, such as emotional and/or physical abandonment, physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse at an early age where the developing brain is particularly receptive for learning and change. Apparently a chronic undercurrent of pain remains present for these survivors. The persisting longing of a love-starved child, which creates an internal climate of despair and despondency, can turn into various styles of self-medicating with drugs or behaviors like sex and love addiction.

Dr. Gabor Mate proposes that 4 brain circuits are involved in addictive processes:

1) OPIATES are analgesics (= pain killers) effective for physical and emotional pain, which involve similar brain activity. They relieve suffering through numbing the sensation of pain. Opiates are heroin, morphine, methadone, codeine, hydrocodone (i.e. Vicodin), Oxycodone, (i.e. Percocet). Opiates are chemically almost identical to the substances produced inside the brain, called endorphines.
Neurons (= brain cells) have receptors for neuro-chemicals, which stimulate them. While killing pain, opiates also create joy and elation, and affect the immune system. They have been called the love chemical - beginning with the connection of infant and mother. Attachment is essential for survival of the child and thus a most powerful feature of evolution. Adult lovers reactivate these early experiences. When attachment is sought to a love object and not reciprocated, it can reactivate early-childhood suffering and create intense crises.

2) DOPAMINE is a brain chemical, which stimulates activities necessary for survival, such as curiosity, vitality, and excitement. The dopamine system has been called the survival system. Low levels of dopamine are experienced as disinterest and lethargy. All drugs release dopamine, but especially nicotine, caffeine, methamphetamine, and cocaine. Our body functions under the economic principle and adjusts to delivery of these substances from the outside - the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors. When drug delivery ceases, there is scarcity in the brain, which means that feelings hurt even more. Food, sex, and exercise also stimulate dopamine release and can be used addictively.

3) ADRENALINE is the stress hormone. Addicts don’t know how to soothe stress efficiently. Without good self-soothing mechanisms a low-intensity impact or irrelevant event is experienced as disquieting, disturbing, and/or threatening… and triggers a high-voltage physiological stress response – i.e. frequent flooding with adrenaline. Because of the addict’s low capacity to self-regulate, they remain in fear-based agitation and/or anger for extended periods of time, which is unpleasant and thus a major trigger to self-medicate via drugs and alcohol.

4) IMPULSE CONTROL – addicts have very little impulse control (or none...). The cerebral cortex, the location of reasoning, memory, common sense, and impulse control, is typically underactive for an addict who feels like acting on an impulse… the ability to defer gratification, a cornerstone of emotional maturity, is compromised. Addiction does have obsessive-compulsive features – lacking inhibitions, addicts don’t know how to alter obsessive thinking or say “No” when tempted by stimulations, motivations, or urges.

Considering these 4 main brain circuits involved in addiction, it can be easily understood why addicts have a hard time achieving and maintaining sobriety, and why ongoing support and spiritual guidance is of great importance.