Reclaiming the Hijacked Brain

Reclaiming the Hijacked Brain: Part 1

Written By: Larry Smith


On February 3, 1999, I was arrested in my home for possession of cocaine and crack cocaine. The local TV news channels in Toledo, Ohio, had a field day covering my arrest and arraignment. Many people found it appalling that a 747 pilot for a major international airline could be addicted to cocaine. In spite of the contempt that many in the press and general public had for me, no one found me more disgusting than I found myself.

After completing a 30-day treatment program in Southern California, I moved into a sober living home and continued my recovery in a rigid aftercare program. I was introduced to my company’s Employee Assistance Program, and one by one I completed a series of closely monitored hurdles. Nine months after being arrested I strapped into a 747 and flew 400 people from San Francisco to Kona, Hawaii. Dr. Joseph Pursch, MD, was the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved psychiatrist who deemed me well enough to fly again.

The FAA mandated that I be monitored for a minimum of five years. I had a laundry list of requirements that kept me in front of doctors, EAP reps, union reps, and chief pilots every month. Being this closely monitored is one of the reasons that pilots have the highest recovery rate of any profession. Ninety-two percent of all pilots that are introduced to recovery make it back to the cockpit and the relapse rate for those individuals is in the single digits.

As my passion for recovery grew, I started facilitating groups and soon became a Certified Addiction Specialist and also certified in EEG Neurotherapy. I slowly developed a knack for speaking, which is fueled more by passion than ability.

I now understand that addiction is a self-contracted neurological disease that truly hi-jacks the brain. We initially chose to try alcohol and drugs, but we didn’t choose the disease of addiction any more than someone chooses to be a diabetic.

Alcohol and drugs affect the brain in very powerful ways. The brain is an electrical- chemical organ that communicates within itself and the rest of the body. This communication in the brain takes place as one neuron (brain cell) connects through synoptic connections to another neuron. An electrical charge (caused by ions) running along the axiom (shaft) of the neuron causes the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals) into the synapse, a small space between the sender and the receptor of the neuron receiving the neurotransmitter. As the receiving neuron metabolizes this neurotransmitter molecule, the magic begins to happen.

Neurotransmitter: Dopamine

There are many types of neurotransmitters, however the one most associated with addiction is dopamine. Dopamine is normally released (in regulated amounts) within the brain so that we feel pleasure. That’s the magic I was referring to – the pleasure as felt when eating a good meal, seeing a beautiful sunset, or having sex. Addictive drugs increase the amount of dopamine released in the brain, and some drugs release enormous amounts of dopamine that in turn creates intense pleasure. Crystal meth causes 13 times the amount of dopamine release as having sex.

The drugs that release the highest amounts of dopamine in descending order are methamphetamine, cocaine, heroine, nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana. Even though marijuana releases only small amounts of dopamine, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

The duration and intensity of the dopamine pleasure surge is different for different drugs. Cocaine’s enormous pleasure surge lasts for 15 to 30 minutes, while the pleasure surge from marijuana, though not as intense, will last for many hours.

The bad news is the dopamine receptors can become overloaded and cannot metabolize all the dopamine the sender cells release. Over time, the dopamine levels in the brain cells are depleted. These take time to replenish, and during this time it is practically impossible to experience normal pleasure. This is known as anhedonia.

The dopamine transporter gene is associated with ADD and ADHD. Many people, including myself, have attention deficit problems. Drugs like cocaine helps focus thinking and behavior; obviously, the effect does not last long.

ADD or ADHD is also present with many people with low beta brain waves. These people are constantly trying to wake up there brain to feel present. Addictive drugs, especially stimulants, have the desired affect that people with a “tired brain” (low beta waves) are looking for.

Stimulants “wake up” the brain of the person suffering from attention deficit, thus the effects of stimulant are more profound for these people. This is why stimulant use statistics are higher for ADD and ADHD people than for the general population.

Accordingly, attention deficit people are also drawn to high-risk behaviors – they yearn to feel alive! Dopamine is also associated with adrenal rushes. Drug use is not the only addicted behavior for people wanting to wake up their brain: shopping, gambling, risky sex, seeking love, and obsessive working out are a few other destructive behaviors.

Other Neurotransmitters and Hormones

Drugs cause the release of many different neurotransmitters such as serotonin (associated with mood swings) and GABA (associated with euphoria, impulsiveness). Norepinephrine has dual roles – one as a neurotransmitter and the other as a stress hormone. As a neurotransmitter, it increases heart rate triggering the release of glucose needed to activate the fight or flight response. Others are listed on the diagram below.

Figure 1 illustrates what happens within the brain when a person drinks or uses.



When we drink or use it has a profound electrical and chemical affect on our brain. Alcohol and drugs slow brain activity and disrupt normal brain regulations. The excessive volume of neurotransmitters released creates emotions and feelings that, when repeated become familiar. Familiarity and repetition, in this context, becomes addictive, which simply stated means “I can’t stop!” In spite of continuous negative consequences or even intellectual awareness, “I am powerless” over my addiction.

Brains Waves: Electricity

The lightning bolt graphic pointing toward the electrical column, in the preceding illustration, deals with brain waves and activity levels. The brain usually is operating between 0.1 and 40 Hz (cycles per second). Our normal conscious state falls with the Beta ranges of 12 to 26 Hz. Lo-beta, also known as SMR brain waives, are the between 12-18 Hz and is the brain state our brains are usually in when awake. Other brains states are:

  • Sleeping: Delta 0.5-4 Hz
  • Meditative: Theta 4-8 Hz
  • Calm: Alpha 8-12 Hz
  • Landing a 747 on a short runway in the dark of night with high, gusty winds and poor visibility will escalate the brains into: Gamma 26-40 Hz

In recovery we strive for the brain to be calm and alert simultaneously. This is not the natural state for alcoholics and addicts. EEG neurofeedback is a noninvasive, biofeedback technique that addresses the issues of irregular brain waves. Irregular brain waves are many times the result of brain trauma. This could be the result of a blow to the head, too many roller coaster rides or my favorite excuse, pulling 7 G’s flying in high-performance jet fighters.

People with irregular brain waves will display character defects ranging from rage attacks to extreme benevolent behavior. There are many studies on the effects addictive drugs have on the brain’s electrical activity.

Besides neurotransmitters, other brain chemical molecules are also associated with addiction, such as endogenous opioid polypeptides (endorphins), hormones, and cannabinoids.

Figure 2 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 re-fires the same chains of neurons. These chains are called neuropathways.

The theory, known as Hebb’s Law, is: Neurons that fire together wire together.

With every drink, every toke, every snort, and every injection we cause neural-circuits to fire, form, and reinforce and therefore, repeated use creates permanent addiction pathways in the brain.

Reclaiming the Hijacked Brain, Part 2, continued in the October/November 2013 edition.


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