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Natural Awakenings New York City

Is Your Dopamine Being Hijacked?

Practice moderation. Don’t allow your dopamine to be hijacked”     ~ Paul Huljich

When most people think of a hijacking, they often picture a person wearing a mask and waving a gun, who takes control of a plane, train or automobile. And although a person can hijack a car for a variety of reasons, it mostly boils down to needing to escape.  In this regard, hijacking is a means to an end; innocent victims are ripped from their normal lives by the violent intrusion, wants and goals of the hijacker.

The word “addiction” is derived from a Latin term for “enslaved by” or “bound to.” Anyone who has struggled (or known someone else who has) with an addiction can understand why.   Addiction is a persistent, compulsive dependence on a habit or substance. There are two types of addictions: substance addictions (for example, alcoholism, drug abuse, and smoking); and process addictions (for example, gambling, spending, shopping, eating, and sexual activity) says Paul Huljich in his latest book Stress Pandemic.

Dopamine is a neurochemical that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers.  Dopamine is crucial for learning adaptive behaviors however addictive habits exploit this normal mechanism by flooding the brain with dopamine. Dopamine enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.  In the “hijacked” view of addiction, the brain is the innocent victim of certain substances — alcohol, cocaine, nicotine or heroin, for example — as well as certain behaviors like eating, gambling or sexual activity. The drugs or the dopamine produced by the behaviors overpower and redirect the brain’s normal responses, and thus take control of (hijack) it. For addicted people, that martini, or cigarette is the weapon-wielding hijacker who is going to compel certain behaviors.

To do this, drugs like alcohol and cocaine and behaviors like gambling light up the brain’s pleasure circuitry, often bringing a burst of euphoria. We tend to want to maximize pleasure;  tend to do things that bring more of it. We also tend to chase it when it subsides, hoping to recreate the same level of pleasure we have experienced in the past. It is not uncommon to hear addicts talking about wanting to experience the euphoria of a first high. Often they never reach it, but keep trying. All of this lends credence to the metaphor of the brain being hijacked.[1]

The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with drugs, money, sex or food. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct moniker: the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, it is the brain’s pleasure center.  All drugs of abuse, from nicotine to cocaine, release a tidal wave of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The likelihood that the use of a drug or participation in any reoccurring rewarding activity will lead to addiction is directly linked to   three factors: speed, intensity and reliability of the dopamine release.   Even taking the same drug

through different methods of administration can influence how likely it is to lead to addiction. 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.

Addictive drugs provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. Scientists once believed that the experience of pleasure alone was enough to prompt people to continue seeking an addictive substance or activity. But more recent research suggests that the situation is more complicated. Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure, but also plays a role in learning and memory — two key elements in the transition from liking something to becoming addicted to it.  According to the current theory about addiction, dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s system of reward-related learning. This system has an important role in sustaining life because it links activities needed for human survival (such as eating and sex) with pleasure and reward.  The reward circuit in the brain includes areas involved with motivation and memory as well as with pleasure. Addictive substances and behaviors stimulate the same circuit — and then overload it.[2]

Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate to us the source of what is causing us pleasure; that is, this process provokes us to take action to seek out the source of pleasure.  In nature, rewards usually come only with time and effort. Addictive drugs and behaviors provide a shortcut, flooding the brain with dopamine and other neurochemicals. Our brains do not have an easy way to withstand the allure and cause of pleasure, no matter how short-term that pleasure lasts or the long-term damage many of these pleasures may cause over time.

Addictive drugs, for example, can release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards do, and they do it more quickly and more reliably. In a person who becomes addicted, brain receptors become overwhelmed. The brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors — an adaptation similar to turning the volume down on a loudspeaker when noise becomes too loud.  As a result of these adaptations, people build up a tolerance to such habits and drugs and the dopamine produced has less impact on the brain’s reward center.  As a result, they have to take more of the drug or engage in the habits producing dopamine more in order to obtain the same dopamine “high.” Addiction ensues, and those who fall addicted become essentially hijacked by the drug or habit controlling them through their dopamine level; that is, addiction falls in line with the brain's expectations. According to Adam Kepecs, a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, “drugs basically "hijack" the brain's normal computational enjoyment and reward mechanisms.”[3]


Article by Paul Huljich – Author Stress Pandemic