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The Brain and Addiction


Moderator: DS
Staff member
Jan 23, 2013
babysitting the argument in my head


For Addicts and Those Who Love Them

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Limbic System Diagram

Whats Going On In The Brian With Addiction?

For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what
the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed
to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.
—St. Paul, Galatians 5:171

If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins.
—Benjamin Franklin

The biggest delusion we face, when understanding addiction or human behavior, is the false belief that the conscious mind is in control of our actions. At best, the prefrontal cortex or conscious mind, is only responsible for a portion of our actions and shares control with another, more elusive part of the brain. In reality, the conscious mind may just be a tool that is manipulated through emotion, to solve the problems that our unconscious mind has which are preventing its goals. The unconscious mind is the limbic system or paleomammalian sections of the Brain, while the conscious can be found mainly in the prefrontal cortex. The unconscious is where the addiction comes from.

The exact working of the brain is greatly based on speculation and hypothesis. This exploration will present evidence for a theoretical model for how the brain works that best explains addiction. There may be evidence presented that have parts that contradict each other or the main theorem of this thread. The thread will draw on current work from some brilliant minds currently deciphering this amazingly complex system. Evidence from different views may be linked for your consideration. However, the thread will promote ideas that explain addiction the best.

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, uses an analogy of an elephant and a rider to porteigh the relationship between the unconsciuse and the conscious. The unconscious or limbic system is the elephant and the conscious mind or the prefrontal cortex is the the driver. He has the belief that the elephant or unconscious mind loves pleasure above all else and is described as animalistic. The conscious on the other hand is described as the divine or spiritual and rational portion of the mind. He states that the conscious mind can not control the unconscious; instead the prefrontal cortex tries to guide the elephant and is thus portrayed as the rider. His thoughts are by no means new and correlate with many of the most amazing minds in recorded history. I have linked the first chapter below that explores the idea of the "divided self." I have also created a link to a free E-copy of the entire book and as it truly is filled with mountains of wisdom you may consider reading it. Many of the principals in this book have made my recovery much easier and loads more peaceful.

Further reading from the Happiness Hypothesis chapter 1: The Divided Self (The idea of the elephant and the rider) >link<


The disgusting way in which addicts are often treated and the stigmatism they face will only change when more people understand what addiction is.

This thread will look at different parts of the brain and different chemicals that are found in the brain and will use these to explain what addiction is and how and why it happens.

The limbic system is a portion of the brain that has been around much longer than the prefrontal cortex and is also called the paleomammalian brain.

The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain that is responsible for problem solving and "implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior." source

Also at the heart of addiction is the dopamine reward pathway or VTA and it resultant drives.
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Dopamine, The VTA, and The Dopamine Pathway

VTA and Dopamine Reward Pathway


The ventral tegmental area (VTA): is a group of neurons located close to the midline on the floor of the midbrain (mesencephalon). The VTA is the origin of the dopaminergic cell bodies of the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system and is widely implicated in the drug and natural reward circuitry of the brain. It is important in cognition, motivation, drug addiction, intense emotions relating to love, and several psychiatric disorders. The VTA contains neurons that project to numerous areas of the brain, from the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to the caudal brainstem and several regions in between. >source<

Dopamine: is a simple organic chemical in the catecholamine and phenethylamine families that plays a number of important roles in the brains and bodies of animals. Its name derives from its chemical structure: it is an amine that is formed by removing a carboxyl group from a molecule of L-DOPA.
In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs, including stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine, act by amplifying the effects of dopamine. Other brain dopamine systems are involved in motor control and in controlling the release of several important hormones. >source<

Notable functions of dopamine include: movement, memory, motivation, pleasurable reward, behavior and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning


Dopaminergic pathways: are neural pathways in the brain which transmit the neurotransmitter dopamine from one region of the brain to another.
The neurons of the dopaminergic pathways have axons which run the entire length of the pathway. The neurons' soma produce the enzymes that synthesize dopamine, and they are then transmitted via the projecting axons to their synaptic destinations, where most of the dopamine is produced. >source<

"The most important reward pathway in brain is the mesolimbic dopamine system. This circuit (VTA-NAc) is a key detector of a rewarding stimulus. Under normal conditions, the circuit controls an individual's responses to natural rewards, such as food, sex, and social interactions, and is therefore an important determinant of motivation and incentive drive. In simplistic terms, activation of the pathway tells the individual to repeat what it just did to get that reward. It also tells the memory centers in the brain to pay particular attention to all features of that rewarding experience, so it can be repeated in the future. Not surprisingly, it is a very old pathway from an evolutionary point of view. The use of dopamine neurons to mediate behavioral responses to natural rewards is seen in worms and flies, which evolved 1-2 billion years ago." from >BRAIN REWARD PATHWAYS<
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The Mesolimbic System is one of our main motivational forces. It determines what situations are likely to lead us to rewards and negative consequences. It determines whats good and bad in our stimulus, or what we see, hear, taste, etc. Once it determines if a experience may lead us to a reward it drives us either toward the goal, or if it could lead to a negative outcome, or away from the danger. In people who dont use drugs the system is programed and designed to drive us toward and reward us for actions that are necessary for the life to continue. We are driven to eat buy hunger and when we eat we feel good. We are driven to drink water by thirst and when we do we feel good. Our sex drive makes us want to have sex and when we are able to we feel really good.

We are also rewarded when we successfully solve a problem or when we get lucky and find a reward. We feel good as a reward for these ocrances. This system is also involved in the drive to accomplish tasks that cause the release of this chemical.

When we experience the drive or craving to take a drug, it is the result of psychological addiction. A plausible theory for how addiction is created is that we have introduced a large "unnatural" dopamine release into this system and it has been logged in given a drive. The dopamine release caused by the drug is often many time larger than the natural dopamine releases that are programmed into the system. This can cause addiction to be greater than the natural drives. Now that we have reprogrammed taking our drug of choice into this drive system we can and will experience strong desires and emotional manipulations to use our DOC. Just as non drug users experience almost uncontrollable urges to eat, drink water, and have sex, we will have a drive to use our DOC. This drive is addiction.

Here are some representations of related dopamine releases and some addictive substances.

SubstancePMAMain EffectOther
CocaineBlocks DA uptakeInc DopamineDirectly increase dopaminergic transmission in the NAc
LSDInc Serotonin
HeroinActivates Mu & delta receptorsInc Dopamine through disinhibition in the VTA of dopamine neurons and direct effects on DA terminals
AmphetaminesInc Dopamine & blocks DA uptakeInc Dopamine
NicotineAcetylcholineInc Dopamine
AlcoholGABA & Substance PInc GABAIncreased MDP activity
MarijuanaActivates Endocannabinoid receptorsInc Dopamine in MDP
MDMAInc Serotonin and block 5-HT uptakeInc SerotoninInc Dopamine
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The Limbic System


The limbic system is a set of evolutionarily primitive brain structures located on top of the brainstem and buried under the cortex. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behavior. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that are related to our survival, such as those experienced from eating and sex. >source<

The hypothalamus: sits under the thalamus at the top of the brainstem. Although the hypothalamus is small, it controls many critical bodily functions: Controls autonomic nervous system Center for emotional response and behavior, Regulates body temperature, Regulates food intake and hunger, Regulates water balance and thirst, Controles sex drive Controls, sleep-wake cycles Controls, fatigue and arousal, blood pressure, and endocrine system. >source<
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Drugs and the Limbic System


The Limbic System
The limbic system is a "collective term denoting a heterogeneous array of brain structures at or near the edge of the medial wall of the cerebral hemisphere, in a particular the hippocampus, amygdala, and fornicate gyrus."3 The limbic system is responsible for creating your feelings and motivation. Your feelings supply the contexts for your sensory and motor activities and can alter how one perceives the world and behaves in it. This portion of the brain physically connects the survival oriented brain stem with the cognitively oriented cortex.
Parts of the Limbic System

Drugs and the Limbic System

All drugs that people abuse all change the way the limbic system works. Drugs disrupt the careful modulation of feelings and motivations that underlie normal behavior. When these feelings lose touch with reality, the person receives artificial relief, pleasure, contentment, and relaxation take over.

The Brain Reward System
The Brain Reward System is a specific limbic circuit that generates the feelings of pleasure. This system originates in a group of neurons that are located in the mid brain (called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA). These neurons then connect to a variety of places within the limbic system, but the important connection is to the nucleus accumbens in the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are a large, complex set of structures within the limbic system that function in generating movements, some cognitive functions, emotional and motivational activities. When a drug activates the VTA neurons, these neurons release dopamine into the nucleus accumbens and the person feels pleasure.

The Limbic System Theory of Addiction

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Wow, I just saw this...this post is the shit, and I'm already planning my contributions!
This is so cool. One of my favorite topics. Can't wait for more. Thanks for the links
The research psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed the idea of Operant Conditioning - a multi artiste method by which organisms could be traied, or train themselves, to either engage in or cease a particular behavior. Many of us are familiar with the names of the independent variables in just such paradigms. Familiar terms may include positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishmentand extinction.

As applied to the recovery and disease model of addiction, operant conditioning is the perfect construct to represent what we addicts have been doing, why we've kept doing it, and distinguishes the transition into sobriety o other factors.

Extinction: Occurs when a behavior (response) that had previously been reinforced is no longer effective. For example, a rat is first given food many times for lever presses. Then, in "extinction", no food is given. Typically the rat continues to press more and more slowly and eventually stops, at which time lever pressing is said to be "extinguished."

As men and women in recovery, once we remove ourselves from the stimulus for long enough, the cravings and the behaviors decline reliably.

We got addicted in the first place through both positive and negative reinforcement. Consider these terms within the context of our early drug use:

Positive reinforcement (Reinforcement): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus that is appetitive or rewarding, increasing the frequency of that behavior. In the Skinner box experiment, a stimulus such as food or a sugar solution can be delivered when the rat engages in a target behavior, such as pressing a lever. This procedure is usually called simply reinforcement.

Additionally, we must consider the seldom-recognized role of

Negative reinforcement (Escape): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus, thereby increasing that behavior's frequency. In the Skinner box experiment, negative reinforcement can be a loud noise continuously sounding inside the rat's cage until it engages in the target behavior, such as pressing a lever, upon which the loud noise is removed.

...wherein I would suggest the likelihood that negative reinforcement is equally as compelling as is positive reinforcement.

Programs that exploit punishment tend not to achieve high success rates.

Positive punishment (Punishment) (also called "Punishment by contingent stimulation"): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise, resulting in a decrease in that behavior. Positive punishment is sometimes a confusing term, as it denotes the "addition" of a stimulus or increase in the intensity of a stimulus that is aversive (such as spanking or an electric shock). This procedure is usually called simply punishment.

Negative punishment (Penalty) (also called "Punishment by contingent withdrawal"): Occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a stimulus, such as taking away a child's toy following an undesired behavior, resulting in a decrease in that behavior.

Think of the former as drinking on Antabuse and getting immensely ill, whereas the latter is akin yo being grounded when your parents smell pot smoke.

Factors a That Alter a The Effectiveness of Consequences

Here are the basic four:

1. Satiation/Deprivation: The effectiveness of a consequence will be reduced if the individual's "appetite" for that source of stimulation has been satisfied. Inversely, the effectiveness of a consequence will increase as the individual becomes deprived of that stimulus. If someone is not hungry, food will not be an effective reinforcer for behavior. Satiation is generally only a potential problem with primary reinforcers, those that do not need to be learned such as food and water.

2. Immediacy: After a response, how immediately a consequence is then felt determines the effectiveness of the consequence. More immediate feedback will be more effective than less immediate feedback. If someone's license plate is caught by a traffic camera for speeding and they receive a speeding ticket in the mail a week later, this consequence will not be very effective against speeding. But if someone is speeding and is caught in the act by an officer who pulls them over, then their speeding behavior is more likely to be affected.

3. Contingency: If a consequence does not contingently (reliably, or consistently) follow the target response, its effectiveness upon the response is reduced. But if a consequence follows the response consistently after successive instances, its ability to modify the response is increased. The schedule of reinforcement, when consistent, leads to faster learning. When the schedule is variable the learning is slower. Extinction is more difficult when learning occurs during intermittent reinforcement and more easily extinguished when learning occurs during a highly consistent schedule.

4. Size: This is a "cost-benefit" determinant of whether a consequence will be effective. If the size, or amount, of the consequence is large enough to be worth the effort, the consequence will be more effective upon the behavior. An unusually large lottery jackpot, for example, might be enough to get someone to buy a one-dollar lottery ticket (or even buying multiple tickets). But if a lottery jackpot is small, the same person might not feel it to be worth the effort of driving out and finding a place to buy a ticket. In this example, it's also useful to note that "effort" is a punishing consequence. How these opposing expected consequences (reinforcing and punishing) balance out will determine whether the behavior is performed or not.​

BUT let's focus on Immediacy and Contingency. Consider the following excerpt, once more keeping in mind how this paradigm has a direct, measurable and statistically significant relationship to human chemical dependency:

"The Principles of Immediacy and Contingency exist for neurochemical reasons. When an organism experiences a reinforcing stimulus, dopamine pathways in the brain are activated. This network of pathways "releases a short pulse of dopamine onto many dendrites, thus broadcasting a rather global reinforcement signal to postsynaptic neurons." This results in the plasticity of these synapses allowing recently activated synapses to increase their sensitivity to efferent signals, hence increasing the probability of occurrence for the recent responses preceding the reinforcement. These responses are, statistically, the most likely to have been the behavior responsible for successfully achieving reinforcement. But when the application of reinforcement is either less immediate or less contingent (less consistent), the ability of dopamine to act upon the appropriate synapses is reduced."

For those inclined to delve deeper, we continue...

"The first scientific studies identifying neurons that responded in ways that suggested they encode for conditioned stimuli came from work by Mahlon deLong and by R.T. Richardson. They showed that nucleus basalis neurons, which release acetylcholine broadly throughout the cerebral cortex, are activated shortly after a conditioned stimulus, or after a primary reward if no conditioned stimulus exists. These neurons are equally active for positive and negative reinforcers, and have been demonstrated to cause plasticity in many cortical regions. Evidence also exists that dopamine is activated at similar times. There is considerable evidence that dopamine participates in both reinforcement and aversive learning. Dopamine pathways project much more densely onto frontal cortex regions. Cholinergic projections, in contrast, are dense even in the posterior cortical regions like the primary visual cortex. A study of patients with Parkinson's disease, a condition attributed to the insufficient action of dopamine, further illustrates the role of dopamine in positive reinforcement. It showed that while off their medication, patients learned more readily with aversive consequences than with positive reinforcement. Patients who were on their medication showed the opposite to be the case, positive reinforcement proving to be the more effective form of learning when the action of dopamine is high."

Some food for thought.
It can be really enlightening to uncover some of the unconscious and neurochemical explanations for our otherwise inexplicable decisions!

~ Vaya
I didn't have time to read all of this as I'm very tired at the moment, but the bit I did read is very interesting. I loved the elephant and the rider analogy. I think when I have the time I will definitely take a look at this book, Ive been looking for a new read and this would be interesting even If I weren't an addict. Excellent Idea.
The Neuroanatomy of Free Will:
Loss of Will, Against the Will, "Alien Hand"

Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.
Emeritus, Brain Research Laboratory, California



"The neuroanatomy of "free will" is described, detailed, and supplemented by case histories of individuals who were compelled to behave against their will, who lost control over their will, and who suffered a complete loss of free will. In all instances the frontal lobe, the medial regions in particular are implicated in the mediation of "free will." The frontal lobes serve as the "Senior Executive" of the brain and personality, acting to process, integrate, inhibit, assimilate, and remember perceptions and impulses received from the limbic system, striatum, temporal parietal and occipital lobes, and neocortical sensory receiving areas. Through the assimilation and fusion of perceptual, volitional, cognitive, and emotional processes, the frontal lobes engages in decision making and goal formation, modulates and shapes character and personality and directs attention, maintains concentration, and participates in information storage and memory retrieval. Further, the frontal lobes, the SMA and medial regions in particular, can direct behavior by controlling movement and the musculature of the body, and in this manner, it serves what is best described as "free will." .

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Something Amazing


The human Brain may be the most amazing thing on the planet. It contains over 85 billion. Thats 85,000,000,000 neurons, electrically excitable nerve cells that processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals utilizing 10^15 synapses, or 10,000,000,000,000,000 structures that permits a nerve cell to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell. Here is what 100 billion US pennies would look like.
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This book is very good and contains a wealth of information about the brain and addiction. I originally had a sample linked and then later that audio version. But its all been taken off the internet. I would recommend borrowing a copy from the library. Here is a short article and a NPR radio program about the book.

NPR:'Compass Of Pleasure': Why Some Things Feel So Good​

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WOW, NSA, You've really gone into detail here. I have not read all of this yet but every time I type it subscribes a thread so hope you don't mind. I think of a thread like this is very important as there is so much stigma around addiction. For instance (I think RedLeader mentioned this) - the assumption that "People choose drugs over their family/friends, they obviously love drugs and not their friends/family" (sorry RedLeader if I have that incorrect). This is a misconception, of course, as just because a person is addicted to drugs does not make them love their family/friends/partners any less.
Did you read those studies that I included in the PAWS thread? There is one on addiction n if it helps you're welcome to use that paper. I included the links and author - I am not sure who will be able to access those studies or not as I had access them to them from my university but if you are able to access them, there is an interesting paper there on addiction. I included that on the PAWS because I thought as well as mentioning PAWS it was important to include a paper on addiction.

So thank you for this information - and for all the other information that you have shared like the addiction guide and so forth. They are, as I said, very informative n beneficial to BL members. Also if you'd like any help with anything like to find any research papers or whatever I'd be willing to help in any way.

Evey :) xxxx