Golden Nuggets and a Kiwi – How Addiction Affects the Brain
Have you seen the short film “Nuggets,” about the kiwi that stumbles upon some golden nuggets? It’s been making the rounds on the internet and social media for some time now. If you haven’t already seen it, take a moment to watch it. This 5 minute animated short by Andreas Hykade, an instructor at Harvard University’s Institute of Animation, is a simple, but evocative metaphor for the disease of addiction.
Nuggets can also been seen on YouTube.
From time to time it’s worth repeating that those suffering from alcoholism and drug abuse don’t lack moral values or self-discipline. “Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the individual and to those around him or her,” as defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Substance Abuse Interrupts Nerve Cells in the Brain
Alcohol and drug abuse actually change the chemical makeup of the brain. These substances interrupt nerve cells in the brain whose jobs are to send and receive information.
Here are two ways drugs and alcohol create these interruptions:
1. Overstimulation of “pleasure centers” in the brain
2. Impersonating the brain’s natural method of communication
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that effect motivation, emotion, mood, physical movement, pain and feelings of pleasure. Some drugs, such as heroin and prescription painkillers, have a similar makeup to opioid neurotransmitters, which affect both pleasure and pain responses in the body.
Stimulants, like cocaine, methamphetamine and even alcohol, trick dopamine neurotransmitters into releasing more of the chemical into the brain. Exercise, being with loved ones, or simply participating in fun events produces dopamine naturally. Overwhelming these neurotransmitters with illicit drugs artificially creates feelings of euphoria and being “high.”
Over time, substance abusers develop a tolerance. It takes more alcohol or drugs to produce the same “good feelings” as before. The lack of dopamine in the brain also affects a person’s ability to enjoy things in life that they used to draw pleasure from. A cycle of addiction takes hold as users try to get dopamine function back to normal levels.
So far there’s no clear answer as to why some individuals are at a greater risk of addiction than others. Science has shown, at least in part, that this disease is a combination of genetics and the environment a person lives in or is exposed to at various times in life. Those exposed to drugs an alcohol at an early age, when the brain is still developing, are at an increased risk for developing chemical dependency issues.
Additionally, mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder, can be an underlying factor in substance abuse and addiction. Mental disorders are also known to be genetic, and so the pattern of illness and substance abuse can last for generations.
The financial cost of substance abuse in the United States, an estimated $417 billion, is staggering. According to two NIH Institutes, one out of every 10 Americans over the age of 12 classified as having substance abuse disorder, the financial toll, though, takes a backseat to the physical and emotional damage that victims and their families experience due to the disease of addiction.
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