For many years, scientists believed that only strong drugs and alcohol could create addiction. However, neuroimaging technology and recent study have revealed that behaviors, such as gambling, and shopping may also impact the brain.
All pleasures are registered in the same way by the brain, regardless of whether they result from a psychoactive substance, a monetary incentive, a sexual experience, or a nice meal. Pleasure has a particular imprint on the brain: dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens, a collection of nerve cells underneath the cerebral cortex. The nucleus accumbens dopamine release is so closely linked to pleasure that neuroscientists refer to it as the brain’s pleasure center.
From nicotine to heroin, all drugs of abuse generate a particularly intense rush of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The risk that using a substance or engaging in a pleasurable activity will lead to addiction is directly related to the rate at which it stimulates dopamine release, the strength of that release, and the consistency with which that release occurs.
Even administering the same medicine in various ways might affect how probable it is to develop an addiction. Smoking or injecting a drug intravenously, instead of ingesting it as a pill, provides a faster, stronger dopamine signal and is more likely to lead to drug abuse. By flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine, addictive substances bypass the brain’s reward mechanism. The amygdala generates a conditioned reaction to particular stimuli, whereas the hippocampus stores memories of this immediate sensation of fulfillment.
Previously, scientists assumed that the sense of pleasure alone was sufficient to keep people from pursuing an addictive chemical or activity. A recent study, however, reveals that the issue is more nuanced. Dopamine not only adds to the pleasure experience but also plays a function in learning and memory, two important factors in the shift from appreciating something to getting addicted to it.
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