Until recently, people with substance use disorders have been considered dangerous criminals. Addiction was thought to afflict only those lacking moral decency and self-control, and if caught, they were punished by law. In the past few decades, however, researchers have discovered that addictive drugs make certain changes the brain that make it close to impossible for a person to stay abstinent from drugs. Addictive drugs trigger dopamine and glutamate to force a person to use more of a substance, leading to tolerance.
Addictive behaviors and substances make changes to the brain by affecting the pleasure center. Medically referred to as the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center reacts to all pleasurable stimuli by releasing a type of neurotransmitter called dopamine. When dopamine is released, the brain decides that the stimuli is worth getting more of. When someone does drugs, however, the nucleus accumbens is flooded with dopamine, and the pleasurable effects are intensified. The brain will then associate the drug with immense pleasure and a person with a substance use disorder will go to greater lengths to use drugs again.
Addictive behaviors and substances also trigger the production of the vital neurotransmitter, glutamate. Glutamate has played a huge role in the continuation of life by linking activities needed for survival, such as eating, with pleasure. Like the results dopamine, these pleasurable effects ensure the activity is repeated. However, an addictive substance also can trigger glutamate. The brain registers the addictive engagement as a necessity for survival, forcing that person to use the substance again.
When the brain is flooded with high levels of dopamine, it gets overwhelmed. To cope, it will stop producing as much dopamine or eliminate dopamine receptors to subdue the extreme effects of the dopamine. This can have fatal consequences on someone with a substance use disorder. To reach the same high demanded by the effects of glutamate, they must use more of the drug. Dangerous doses of addictive drugs commonly lead to death.
Although the main body of this article discussed the science of addiction of the brain, the purpose was to prove how difficult it is for someone with a substance use disorder to abstain from using drugs. Hijacking the production of dopamine and glutamate, addictive substances force them to only focus on using more of a drug. The more they use, the more dangerous it gets. Therefore, treating drug addiction like it’s a crime and encouraging an addict to “just say no” is both incorrect, and ineffective. Instead, therapy and treatment should be readily available to anyone struggling. People suffering from substance use disorders don’t deserve scorn; they deserve help.