New research suggests that the process of a brain becoming addicted is similar to a driver overcorrecting a vehicle.
When drugs and alcohol release unnaturally high levels of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure system, oxidative stress occurs in the brain, according to scientists from Brigham Young University.
“Addiction is a brain disease that could be treated like any other disease,” researcher Scott Steffensen, Ph.D., said. “I wouldn’t be as motivated to do this research, or as passionate about the work, if I didn’t think a cure was possible.”
During their research, Steffensen and his collaborators found that the brain responds by generating a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This correction suppresses the brain’s normal production of dopamine long after someone comes down from a high. Not having enough dopamine is what causes the pains and anxiety of withdrawal, according to the researchers.
“The body attempts to compensate for unnatural levels of dopamine, but a pathological process occurs,” Steffensen said. “We think it all centers around a subset of neurons that ordinarily put the brakes on dopamine release.”
Steffensen and his team have published three new scientific papers detailing their research.
Jennifer Blanchard Mabey, a graduate student in neuroscience, co-authored a paper about withdrawal that is in the current issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. “It’s rewarding to see that your research efforts place another small piece in the enormous addiction puzzle,” she said.
Meanwhile, Steffensen and Ph.D. candidates Nathan Schilaty and David Hedges co-authored another paper that explains how nicotine and alcohol interact in the brain.
“Addiction is a huge concern in our society and is very misunderstood,” Schilaty said. “Our research is helping us to formulate ideas on how we can better help these individuals through non-invasive and non-pharmacological means.”
Eun Young Jang, a postdoctoral fellow in Steffensen’s lab, authored a third paper for Addiction Biology describing the effects of cocaine addiction on the brain’s reward circuitry.
In all three papers, dopamine is the common thread.
“I am optimistic that in the near future medical science will be able to reverse the brain changes in dopamine transmission that occur with drug dependence and return an ‘addict’ to a relatively normal state,” Steffensen said. “Then the addict will be in a better position to make rational decisions regarding their behavior and will be empowered to remain drug free.”
The university also reports that Steffensen recently received a two million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health to help fund projects in his lab for the next five years.
Source: Brigham Young University