Reclaiming the Hijacked Brain: Part II
By Larry J. Smith, CAS II
This graphic illustrates the neurological progression that takes place from the initial event of using through the entire addictive process.
The hijacking takes place as millions of neurons, with tens of thousands of synoptic connections, fire simultaneously, releasing high volumes of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Every hit, toke, line, or drink refires the same chains of neurons. These chains are called neural pathways, and repeated use creates neural-pathways for addiction in the brain.
The theory known as Hebb’s Law states: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
This also illustrates the neural circuits in the brain that affect the addict’s decision-making abilities. You may find the location of each of these areas on the brain in Figure 3 below.
The Neural Circuits and Drugs
The first area that drugs affect is the Ventral tegmental area (VTA). This is a small, primitive area located in the bottom of the mid-brain (the reward center). When drugs hit the brain, the VTA is the first place that dopamine synthesizes; then a signal is sent to the nucleus accumbens. This area of the brain makes food taste better, flowers smell better, music sound better and, most importantly, sex and drugs feel better.
The nucleus accumbens, in turn, releases dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and endorphins. It then sends messages to the thalamus, which is the main relay that connects almost all the areas of the brain from the cerebrum to the spinal cord.
The thalamus relays signals to an area in the frontal lobe (blue area in Fig. 3) called the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain houses our higher-level thinking and is responsible for moderating social behaviors in humans. It does this by sending a signal to the mid-brain to behave and act appropriately in dealing with primitive desires. This signal is sent via the fasciculus retroflexus to the mid-brain, but alcohol and drugs destroy it, thus causing the addict and the alcoholic to lose the ability to reason and to exhibit good moral behavior.
The drug methamphetamine poses the greatest danger to these elongated, tubular nerve fibers. While alcohol can take years to damage this area, crystal meth can practically destroy the fasciculus retroflexus in a single night of using. This brain damage is why a meth addict can shoot a clerk while robbing a convenience store and, at the time, feel no remorse.
The VTA also sends signals to the amygdala, which regulates hormonal secretion, and the hippocampus, which sends and retrieves messages to memory. Other parts of the brain, such as the medulla oblongata, hypothalamus, and the basal ganglia, control heart rate, breathing, temperature, physical movement, and balance, and are also negatively affected by the use of drugs.
The frontal lobe releases another neurotransmitter known as glutamate, which triggers the pleasurable memories of getting high. Remembering past highs is known as euphoric recall. The mind also is capable of forgetting the negative consequences from previous use. As I tell my clients, “Your brain will lie to you. It will use every form of denial to convince you it is OK to use just one more time.”
A little knowledge of what happens in the brain with addiction can be both powerful and frightening. Now we are aware of why the “Just Say No!” campaign in the 1980s was so ineffective.
Changing What Is Familiar
We all know humans love the familiar, whether it be addiction, negative thoughts, daily routines, or other habitual behaviors. We not only become addicted to the chemicals, we become obsessed with our thoughts and feelings. You don’t have to be an addict to experience obsession with negative thoughts…ask an Al-ANON member.
With addiction, we create many very strong neuropathways and they’re not going away. This is one of the reasons that we say, “once an addict, always an addict”. The solution is to create new neuropathways with totally new thoughts and behaviors. We do this by doing and thinking the unfamiliar until it eventually becomes familiar.
Sixty thousand is the approximate number of thoughts we have each day. For every thought, there is an electrical and chemical action in the brain. Thoughts that have emotional ties are more likely to make it into stored memory. As repeated emotional thinking becomes familiar, we reinforce those neuropathways — just as we do with chemical addiction. This is why the family member who constantly thinks about the alcoholic or addict in her life is also sick.
The addict and the codependent must make drastic changes in their thinking for healing to take place. In order to change years of addictive behavior and obsessive thinking, a connection of a spiritual nature will ensure scientific results. That’s why living in the present is so powerful in recovery.
The fear that addicts and codependents have experienced will be redirected to living a life of love and service. We no longer can afford resentments and prejudices as we strive to develop an attitude of gratitude. Although it doesn’t happen quickly, these things actually create healthy neurological changes in the brain. The practice of prayer, meditation, good nutrition, and exercise are helpful in reclaiming our brain by developing new neuropathways.
Recovering people are told to seek spiritual connections, to help others, even if it is not pleasurable. Most importantly, self-assessing feelings, emotions, and behaviors are instrumental in recovery. Instead of analyzing why we can’t do something, we are taught to simply take action. The dilemma remains that our new way of life demands practice and repetition, always remembering that we have a formidable enemy: our very own brain’s wiring for addiction.
In essence, recovery from addiction and distorted thinking requires doing the unfamiliar until it becomes familiar. The good news is that we have 100 billion neurons, all with between 1,000 and 100,000 possible synoptic connections. We have the potential to create almost unlimited new neuropathways. The more the new pathways are used, the stronger they become. The old neuropathways, although still there, are not as active and start to dissipate.
This potential allows for remission from the terminal disease of addiction, and is why in recovery Dr. Pursch would tell me, “Larry, in recovery, you can become weller than well”. I thought at the time he was kidding me; now I know that he was right. I am living a life today that I could have never imagined. I have a sense of purpose and strong personal relationships with loved ones and friends in the fellowship. I remember well the agony of living with an active addiction. I have learned that sharing my experience, strength, and hope with others assures me on a daily basis that I don’t ever have to revisit the life I was living before February 5, 1999…the day I was released from jail and the day I took my last drink.