With the advent of new medical technology, such as fine scanning of the brain through MRI, researchers have been able to discover the science behind opiate dependence and the particular mechanisms that lead to dependency. They have found that dependency actually has a biological cause, and it is a treatable, predictable phenomenon of brain physiology that determines how you become dependent or struggle with overcoming it. In many ways, dependency has a great deal to do with body chemistry, although there certainly is a psychological component. However, this component is often not as great as people think.
To understand how opioids affect your brain, you need to understand how your brain works. Your brain is set up to reward certain behaviors with a release of chemicals that make you feel good. Medications and drugs short circuit this system and sometimes leave you searching out that feeling again and again. Dependency has many scientific reasons, exploring the science behind opiate dependence can help you get a handle on your condition.
Anatomy and Physiology of the Brain
A number of brain cells, properly called neurons, make up the brain. They look like a circle with many tentacles protruding from it. The tentacle that is longer than the others is the axon. At the end of the axon is a group of deposits that hold brain chemicals or neurotransmitters.
When the neuron is excited or stimulated, it fires and releases these neurotransmitters from the end of the axon. They are secreted into a gap that exists between the current neuron and the next on the chain. The hair-like projections on the neuron, called dendrites, pick up these neurotransmitters, and that neuron becomes excited. It creates the release of neurotransmitters in the gap with the next neuron. In this way, the signal passes throughout the brain, down the spinal cord, and into the peripheral nerves.
How Drugs Affect the Brain
Medications act on the brain by influencing neurotransmitters. In some drugs, such as marijuana, the drug itself pretends to be a neurotransmitter and causes a pleasurable excitation of the neurons. Some medications keep the neurotransmitter in the gap longer or increase the amount of the neurotransmitter released. This causes a surge of excitement in the neurons, and they feel very good, very quickly.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter most commonly manipulated by medications. Dopamine has many functions in the brain, and it is often integral in the movement of muscles and other processes. The most salient function this chemical performs is indicating pleasurable sensations. When you taste something sweet or gaze at a loved one, dopamine is released and neurons are excited to make you feel good. With dependency creating drugs, the brain releases dopamine in large amounts, making you want that feeling all the time.
Scientific Reasons for Dependency
Since not everyone who is exposed to a drug becomes physically or psychologically dependent on it, some aberration of this reward system must exist in certain people to make them more susceptible. Science bears this out.
Some drugs help to multiply the number of dopamine receptors on the neurons and this makes them give you a rush. However, those receptors don’t go away, and when they do not get the hit of the dopamine from the drug, it can induce cravings for that good feeling. It is a simple need of the receptors in your brain due to a chemical change brought about by the drug.
Another chemical in the brain, known as GABA, is responsible for stopping the flood of dopamine into the synaptic gap. It works as a virtual brake for the reward system and keeps you from getting too attached to that pleasurable feeling. In some people, this system does not work as well. Either you don’t have enough GABA or it doesn’t work as it should.
In the end, the reasons for developing a dependency to a drug or medication are multifactorial. There is definitely a chemical and neurological reason behind why some people become addicted and some do not. In addition, there are social, psychological, and unknown factors that influence why one person becomes dependent and another doesn’t. The important point to remember is that dependency is a treatable condition, and it has nothing to do with a person’s relative strength or weakness.
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