Addiction Begins With Overcorrection in Brain, Studies Find
Addiction is a disease. This simple fact is one that is only now finally taking root. For decades, most people, even the experts, viewed addiction as a moral weakness. The truth is coming to light now that researchers have uncovered the mechanisms in the brain that drive substance abuse and addiction. The newest of that research comes to us from three studies conducted at Brigham Young University’s neuroscience department.
BYU Addiction Research
It may seem ironic that the school long known for being the most sober of all higher education institutions in the U.S. is leading the way in addiction research. But the students and educators at BYU are passionate about helping those who struggle with addiction. Professor Scott Steffensen of the neuroscience research department at BYU is leading the studies that are getting to the bottom of this brain disease. Steffensen professes a faith in the possibility of a cure for addiction. He and his team recently published three new studies that are leading the way toward that cure. Their research is so promising that the National Institutes of Health has given the research team $12 million in grants to continue their work.
Addiction Driven by Overcorrection
The biggest recent finding from Steffensen’s lab may be the discovery that addiction is related to an overcorrection in the brain. The comparison can be made to driving a car. When a car slips on an icy road, the driver may overcorrect and go too far in the other direction, ending up in the ditch anyway. When a drug user takes a substance, the high experienced comes from a huge release of the brain’s pleasure chemical called dopamine.
Steffensen’s group found that the user’s brain overcorrects for that flood of dopamine. The brain releases a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to suppress the flow of dopamine. BDNF overcorrects resulting in a deficit of dopamine in the brain and the resulting feelings of withdrawal that are so awful: tremors, headaches, irritability, nausea, etc. Those feelings of withdrawal caused by the overcorrection lead the drug user to go back for more just to feel normal again.
Steffensen and his colleagues believe that they have puzzled out a key factor in how people become addicted. The brain and body attempt to compensate for the unnatural flood of dopamine caused by a drug, but go too far. The correction continues long after the drug user has come down from the high, resulting in withdrawal. The researchers hope that they can now focus on the neurons, or brain cells, that are responsible for this overcorrection. If the creation of withdrawal could be eliminated, addiction may never take root.
The research group has also recently published other important work on addiction, including an analysis of how nicotine from cigarettes and alcohol interact with each other in the brain and how they impact dopamine release. A third published study from the BYU group describes research tackling the impact of cocaine in the brain and on the dopamine reward pathway.
The researchers from BYU are passionate about what they do and are dedicated to figuring out how addiction works and how to cure it. While they have yet to find the ultimate answer to the problem of addiction, these devoted scientists are making important headway.