If the neurobiology of addiction were a movie, dopamine might get the starring role. Addiction simply doesn’t happen without dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messaging systems in the brain that carry specific messages from one area of the brain to the next. When that message is received by the various portions of the brain, it creates numerous ripple effects. Dopamine carries the message of pleasure and communicates with multiple areas of the brain, most notably the nucleus accumbens, which is one of the primary reward systems in the brain.
Commonly abused drugs and substances like alcohol stimulate the production of dopamine, specifically in the nucleus accumbens. The production is a surplus- the reason drugs and alcohol “feel good” is because of the plethora of dopamine produced and communicated to the reward system. The production of dopamine in the reward and pleasure center of the brain sends out a number of different messages, the main one saying: this feels good, really good, and we should do this again. Eventually, that dopamine circuitry works its way into the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and many other parts of the brain, like the midbrain, one of the most critical components of addiction.
Other parts of the brain get attention for the way that chemical dependency on drugs and alcohol influences them. Emotional regulation, fear, consequences, hurting others, hurting the self- all these little parts of a person’s personality and behaviour change under the influence of addiction. What most people question about addiction is this: Why do people continue to participate in a behavior, like it is life or death, when it can literally cause death and end life? The answer lies in the way dopamine affects the midbrain.
The midbrain is where what can be called the operations of survival live. Humans, at the core of their existence, have but a few simple demands. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to hunt in order to eat, and we have to reproduce in order to ensure our species has longevity. Our survival operations have a specific order and the greater direction of our lives is controlled by that order. Addiction creeps its way into the midbrain and enters itself on the ordering line until it reaches the top. In the neurobiology of addiction, obtaining, using, and being intoxicated on drugs and alcohol quite literally becomes a means for survival.
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