Unlocking the key to addiction: Scientists have made a crucial discovery about our brains and cravings


After sharing an article I found interesting on Facebook this past weekend, I did something I never do: I engaged with a troll who opted to spew unwarranted, unsubstantiated and unwanted vitriol in the comments. It was dumb of me to stoop to that level, but he started it and really pissed me off.

The article I shared was a recent New York Times story that details the extent of opioid addiction in the U.S. In short, opioid addiction in America is huge. In 2015 33,000 died from opioid addiction, and the number of opioid-related deaths nearly matches the number of deaths from automobile collisions. Additionally, the Times story highlights that heroin-related deaths alone surpassed the number of deaths from gun homicide. It’s a crisis our society has to face, which is why I found it paramount to share. Erudition can help eradicate, or at least reduce, ignorance and lead to scientific discoveries that help mitigate symptoms associated with mental health issues.

Addiction is a sensitive subject for me that hits close to both home and office in my case. Family members on my mother’s and father’s sides have suffered from addiction, which caused a persistent fear in my mother that my sister or I would also be taken by the curse that’s in our blood. Instead, it’s seemed to have the opposite effect. I have difficulty attaching; I’ve always had a curious ability to go off things simply because I could. Maybe it’s similar to the way the product of two negative integers is a positive in math. I’ve seen family members go through the torment of addiction and witnessed the fear, frustration and sadness it’s caused my mother throughout my life. Working as a music journalist I’ve seen the effects of addiction while conducting interviews backstage or watching an admired musician stumble in performance. It’s by no means a fun lifestyle, and anyone who suggests it’s a choice is grossly misinformed. It’s for these reasons and more the troll’s comment affected me so deeply.

The comment was simple: “addiction is a social behavior, not a mental health issue.” Statements like this are the problem because they lead to incorrect beliefs, bigotry, and the perpetuation of social stigmas. According to the DSM-5, addiction is best defined as a maladaptive pattern of substance abuse that leads to clinically significant impairment or distress that is manifested through myriad criteria.

Despite medical and psychological support that addiction is in fact a mental illness, many dismiss the symptoms and the behaviors exhibited as a result of it, and shame people who suffer from addiction through the use of pejoratives such as “junkie” or “druggie,” or suggestions of simply “quitting.” You don’t tell a person suffering from a medical ailment like cancer or a broken leg to just stop.

But science is getting closer to unraveling the many complexities that contribute to addiction. A vital new study shows that addictive cravings exist after life. A team of researchers discovered addictive cravings are detectable in the brain after death. Researchers at Medical University Vienna have reported finding traces of a specific protein, FosB, that is altered in the reward center of the brain of people with addictive disorders, after death. The protein is genetically modified under the stimulus of drugs, which causes the protein to become more stable and therefore remain in the brain for a much longer period of time. This means cravings for the stimulus persists as the brain develops a sort of memory of the high felt from the satisfaction of the craving being satiated, effectively making both the brain and the body crave it more.

The high induced in the reward center of the brain isn’t exclusive to drugs and alcohol. As society becomes increasingly intertwined with activity on social media, our brains are becoming conditioned to seek the pleasure-inducing rewards of online validation. A 2016 study from UCLA found the brains of teenagers were exhibited greater neural activity in the regions responsible for reward processing by receiving more likes on Instagram.

In that way, the troll wasn’t entirely wrong on Facebook. Relevance and popularity are socially reinforced behaviors that can be dangerous. Given the ubiquity of social media and the value placed on gaining followers, likes and reposts, our society is being conditioned to crave attention in the form of online endorsements that can be exacerbated by a predisposition to addiction. A combination of addictive tendencies and genetic predispositions should be seen as an augur for our culture. Telling someone to get off their phone might not be any easier than telling someone to stop abusing drugs or other substances. We need to be more cognizant of the biological impact of addiction in a person’s life now that research can prove its traces after death.

Link to article here: http://flip.it/36rSR2

Written by: Erin Coulehan

Date: Jan 12th, 2017