The Key Step to Recovery, even Nationally, is to Admit we have a Problem: “Houston, we have a Problem…”
We live in an “addictive age.” If we would total the number of people that are addicted to gambling, drugs and alcohol, sex, eating, work, shopping, Internet, video games, pain killers, caffeine, smoking, etc. we would find ourselves in the midst of a national epidemic–and we are! I will spare the exhaustive statistics by instead stating a much more important conclusion: The deadly impact that addictions have on a society are well documented and publicized and it is past high time that we make addictions an issue of national focus in order to offer the masses adequate, competent, comprehensive, and effective treatment.
Addictions: Predisposition, Choice…or Both
It is estimated that about one million children have been born after fetal cocaine exposure since the mid-1980’s. These early discovered “crack babies” would now be in their 30’s…an age where they would be currently leading their families, companies, and our nation in various capacities. Depending on how well they were treated for their “addiction” will determine in large part how effective they will be able to function in these critical roles as well as what overall affect they will have on the very health fabric of the next generation and society at large.
The past “crack baby” findings and the emerging evidence for “genetic alcoholism” is crucial in establishing the veracity of a biological disposition for some. Discovering causal factors such as a biological link enables professionals to put together a more holistic and effective treatment plan for the addict. This article is based in research that give credence to both the medical model (admits we have genetic vulnerabilities) and the Moral Model (ultimate responsibility lies still lies with our choices).
Fascinating SPECT Images of an Addicts Mind:
The neurobiological differences of an addict becomes crystal clear through a brain scan called SPECT (Single Photo Emission Computed Tomography). Unlike CT or MRI brain scans that study the anatomy (mere structure) of the brain, SPECT scans study the function or active processes of the brain. Why is this distinction critical? Most psychological problems have nothing to do with differences in the brain’s structure, but with function.
Dr. Todd Clements, founder of the Clements Clinic in Dallas, Texas, showed pictures of a heroine addict’s brain in a session he did entitled “The Neurobiology Of Addiction (2009). The frontal lobe area of their brain looked like swiss cheese because of all the holes in it. As a result of the holes, a heroin addict thinks more slowly, has diminished brain functionality, is less focused, thinks less clearly, and has a dimmer outlook or approach to life. It is important to note that while many other types of addicts can have their brain return to 100% normality in appearance, heroine addicts cannot.
SPECT scans are helpful in that they can show if damage has been done to the brain because of addiction or if there is some underlying brain composition that was there before the addiction that is actually driving the addiction.
Here are a few additional neurochemical findings by modern researchers:
1) Dopamine (known as the “pleasure chemical”) is the main chemical involved in all addictions.
2) People who watch pornography have the same part of the brain (nucleus accumbens) “light up” as someone who does cocaine, which produces similar feelings of pleasure, excitement, energy, power, and of being super alive.
3) “Brain scientists tell us that “in 3/10 of a second a visual image passes from the eye through the brain, and whether or not one wants to, the brain is structurally changed and memories are created as we literally ‘grow a new brain’ with each visual experience.”
What Came First, “The Crack or the Egg”:
The age old question “What came first, the chicken or the egg” is applicable to SPECT and its findings. In other words, were there deficiencies in the brain before a person snorted a line of crack that made them more susceptible to crack? Or, did the choice of doing crack affect the brain chemistry in such a way as to create increased cravings for it. Depending on the individual it could be one or the other. As stated before, some individuals are born with a disposition towards addictions. In other cases, there are environmental factors such as abuse that predisposes a person toward addictions. Last but not least, some simply get hooked out of peer pressure or a simple desire to experiment.
A look into the Basil Ganglia of an addict often times finds an over activated section of the brain. If the Basil Ganglia is already overly activated (before addiction) the individual will tend to be a tense, rigid, hyper, or has what is called a “fast RPM brain.” People that have this type of functioning Basil Ganglia are more prone towards marijuana, alcohol, or other drugs because it helps them calm down or slow down their racy thoughts. A drink or two may help them tone down or turn off their brain so to speak. People with A.D.D. act similarly to people with an overly active Basil Ganglia.
An inactive Frontal-Lobe area can have the same effect of an overly active Basil Ganglia. Research finds that there is a direct correlation between low activity in the pre-frontal cortex and sexual addiction (Amen, 2007).
The Connection Between Trauma, Memories, Neurochemistry and Addiction
Let’s say a pubescent boy learns to masturbate around the time of experiencing abuse, trauma, or loneliness (a real life scenario stated by Dr. Mark Laser). In fact, 81% of addicts have been abused as children. The sexual experience of masturbation will release the pleasure chemical dopamine to offset temporarily the pain that the boy is enduring. The problem here, though, is the boy is learning (developing) pleasure “cues” or “triggers” that become associated with hurt, pain, or woundedness. What this means is that anytime the boy experiences pain in life he more than likely will resort to masturbation as a crutch “drug” to medicate or deal with his pain. He is learning to become his own “pharmacist” of his own “pharmaceutical company” in dispensing natural “brain drugs” whenever he is in pain, which is creating dependency or addiction.
Due to this easy access of neurochemicals (self-medication), a sexual addict in this way is more difficult to treat. Unlike a cocaine addict who has to depend on an “outside” source for his drug, a sexual addict can “call up” past images or fantasies that in turn will “jump start” the production of the the neurochemical dopamine to produce the same pleasurable effect as that of cocaine.
The Brain Contains other Addictive Drugs in the “Drugstore”: Thalamus, Endorphins, and Opioid Receptors
A secondary neurobiological process that occurs with addiction is that it activates the nucleus accumbens (it is thought to play an important role in reward, pleasure, laughter, addiction, aggression, fear), releases endorphins (and addictive chemical itself) and activates the thalamus or deep Limbic part of the brain. The Thalamus stores charged memories and has a lot to do with emotions. Too much activity in this section of the brain and a person will feel negative, have low motivation, can cause one to not want to be around people, become irritable, or feel down.
Within the thalamus is a bunch of opioid receptors. The term opioid is used for any type of chemical that behaves in a manner similar to that of opium. Basically, it acts as a natural pain killer. Therefore, when a person experiences a situation that reminds them of a past trauma, they will resort to an activity (e.g. drugs, sex) that will not only produce pleasure but induce the activity of the opioid receptor that acts as an opium to kill the pain.
Hence, you can see how one can become a literal walking drugstore with all the neurochemicals at our disposal if we learn how to induce them through certain behaviors that release them.
As one can see, the neurobiology of an addicts mind can make treatment very complex in overcoming. In many cases, treatment will require medication(s) to block the good effect from the addiction and the bad effect from the withdrawal. It will take hard work to “rewire” the brain, but recovery is possible for anyone. The brain is elastic and so therefore can overcome any addiction.
A great place to start treatment is with AACC (American Association of Christian Counseling).
“Treating Sexual Addiction” (speaker Dr. Mark Laaser). The Seven Desires of the Heart. Lesson 10. DVD. www.lightuniversity.com, 2007.
“Treating Sexual Addiction” (speaker Dr. Daniel Amen). Sex on the Brain: The Neuro-chemistry of Sexual Addiction. Lesson 4. DVD. www.lightuniversity.com, 2007.
“Addiction & Recovery” (speakers Dr. Mark Laser & Dr. Todd Clements). The Neurobiology of Addiction. Lesson 4. DVD. www.lightuniversity.com, 2009.