BRAIN REBOOT - Chapter 6

Addiction is more than what we eat, drink, or smoke. In the United States, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual now lists internet gaming disorder as an addiction. Addiction is everywhere, even shopping or Facebook. Any behavior that is rewarding and makes us feel great can be addictive. The most debated of the new addictions are smartphones and food.


Let me know how you experience addition in your everyday life. Neuroscience shows that there are ways to rewire your brain and stop addiction.


EXTRACT FROM CHAPTER 6


6.5 Hijacked brains


The research shows that the brain gets hijacked by the cocktail of chemicals, especially opioids, which are chemicals that act on neural receptors in the brain. They produce a morphine-like chemical that offers relief to pain. There is a huge array of natural and artificial opioids.


The kinds of opioids include natural opiates, synthetic opioids, which are commonly referred to as narcotic, or painkilling opioid drugs. Natural opiates are found in the opium resin of the poppy. Morphine and codeine are used as painkillers. Fully synthetic opioids such as methadone and fentanyl are manufactured chemically and do originate from opium.


Dr. Sean Mackey oversees Stanford University’s pain management program. He explains how neuroscience is changing the medical perception that patients who become addicted simply have poor self-discipline. Medication that stops their pain receptors in the brain from firing out of control is addictive to the brain. Brain scan images of cocaine addicts shows how their reward circuitry was stimulated. Dr. Sean Mackey and many others are trying to find alternatives that prevent this activation and keep people from falling prey to “unseen” triggers.


Addiction causes a change to the brain. Signaling between neurons is interrupted and addiction will change brain circuits to assign supreme value to a drug’s effect. The addicted brain then has to “chase the dragon” to get the same neural response, often at the expense of their health, work, family, and financial well-being.

The brain is a stimulus response system. “Addiction is a pathological form of learning,” says Dr. Antonello Bonci, a neurologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Neuroscience is changing medical opinion about addiction, what it is in the brain, what can trigger it, and why quitting is so difficult for addicts.


Not so long ago medical textbooks explained that addiction is a dependence on a chemical like nicotine or other drugs. Addicts suffer as their tolerance increases and need more to feel the same effects.

This model also didn’t explain relapse. Why do people long for their drug of choice years after the brain is no longer dependent? Recent US surgeon general’s reports now agree with the research that addiction is not purely a psychological disease but a physiological and neurological disease, too. It’s a lot more than a moral failing.

The brain is an exquisite reward detector.

New research shows our reward system is different to craving pleasure. Craving is triggered by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Pleasure is triggered by neurotransmitters in “hedonic hotspots.”


As of May 2015, these hedonic hotspots have been identified in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), part of the hypothalamus. When the craving circuitry overwhelms the pleasure hotspots, addiction occurs, leading addicts to chase the dragon in spite of the consequences to the health, wealth, or relationships. The brain becomes hardwired and it needs the fix to function.

It seems that our brains developed this dopamine-based reward system to encourage behaviors that help us survive, such as eating when we see food, as it might not be there later.


Desire is the trigger that shoots out the neurotransmitter dopamine. This dopamine intensifies our motivational drive. Just the glimpse of a perfect little pyramid of white washing powder can set off a cocaine addict to crave and binge again. The neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz calls the neurons that make dopamine “the little devils in our brain,” as this chemical drives all our desires.

That’s why the smell of coffee or the text alert can trigger craving. If you are addicted, you won’t even consciously notice and before you know your brain is in high states of arousal. We all have brains that are primed to having our ancient reward system triggered. Sadly, consciousness arrives too late to the party. We’re already half way through the moist and warm delicious chocolate cake dripping with little melting pockets on Lindt inside. Maybe you are feeling snacky all of a sudden?

Addiction is more than what we eat, drink, or smoke. In the United States, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual now lists internet gaming disorder as an addiction. Addiction is everywhere, even shopping or Facebook. Any behavior that is rewarding and makes us feel great can be addictive. The most debated of the new addictions are smartphones and food.


Dr. Nicole Avena, a New York-based neuroscientist, has shown research that rats will keep wolfing sugar if they have access. Their brains get addicted and the neural imaging looks similar to brains on cocaine. She says processed foods cause persistent desire to eat. Repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop are addiction. Avena explains that food addiction is real. People struggle with obesity due to a food addiction. Mainly refined carbs and sugars.


Neuroscience is showing the process of what goes wrong in the brain during addiction. But how can we change addictive behaviors? Judson Brewer is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts Medical School. Brewer is a student of Buddhist psychology and psychiatrist who works with addiction. Treating addiction needs science to meet ancient contemplative practices. He uses meditation and other contemplative techniques to improve self-awareness behaviors.

In Buddhism, craving causes suffering. There’s growing evidence that mindfulness can counter this. The University of Washington researchers showed that mindfulness practice effectively prevents drug relapse, even more so than the usual twelve-step programs addicts attend. Mindfulness trains the brain of addicts to pay quiet attention to their cravings and how to not react to them. The approach is to simply sit it out and let the wave of intense desire pass.

Thinking of the hunger to snort or binge as an event that too will pass seems to be the key. Mindfulness also inspires addicts to become observers of their feelings when they feel the call of poison.


Brewer and others have shown that meditation quiets the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The PCC is found in the upper part of the “limbic lobe.” The PCC triggers rumination that can lead to a loop of hunger and desire to “take a hit.”

Brewer runs a mindfulness group with many fully functional people who now consider themselves addicts. Diana, a consultant and coach, joined his mindfulness group to break her ice-cream addiction. Diana explains here cravings have decreased, and she is more equipped to resist the lure of her addictive sweet tooth.


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