The nature of addiction

Great stuff in the NYT on the latest research on addiction and how it changes your brain.  The good news: you can change your brain for the better by changing to a more positive environment.  Bad news: a stressful environment makes your more prone to addiction:

Michael Nader at the Wake Forest School of Medicine showed this in a study of monkeys and cocaine. When monkeys are moved from an individual cage and housed in a group, some become dominant and others assume a submissive role. For those that become dominant — meaning they get more attention, more grooming and more access to food and treats — this is a positive change. They now have more D2 dopamine receptors and are less interested in self-administering cocaine. But for submissive animals, the group setting is a stressful change, and they respond by increasing their use of cocaine.

Strikingly, the effect of environment is easily reversible: Stress the dominant monkey by returning it to a solo cage and its D2 receptors will drop — and its taste for cocaine will increase. In other words, simply by changing the environment, you can increase or decrease the likelihood of an animal becoming a drug addict.

The same appears true for humans. Even people who are not hard-wired for addiction can be made dependent on drugs if they are stressed. Is it any wonder, then, that the economically frightening situation that so many Americans experience could make them into addicts? You will literally have a different brain depending on your ZIP code, social circumstances and stress level.

The last important component of addiction is access. No matter how stressed you are, you obviously won’t become a drug addict unless you’re exposed to drugs. The same goes for compulsive overeating.

I feel quite confident that I’m very high in D2 receptors.  I suspect I’m lucky in that I was probably born with more than my fair share, but I’ve certainly also benefited from a great environment for most of my life.  And, since I’m a good liberal, I’m not going to judge those with stress and fewer D2 receptors who suffer from addiction.  Here’s a thought– public policies that help, rather than punish (thereby greatly increasing stress)– addicts.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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