The Tara Treatment Center Blog

The Science of Addiction: Brain Chemistry and the Pleasure Principle

The Science of Addiction with Dr. Quinn T. Chipley

“The pleasure principle long persists, however, as the method of working employed by the sexual instincts, which are so hard to ‘educate,’ and, starting from those instincts, or in the ego itself, it often succeeds in overcoming the reality principle, to the detriment of the organism as a whole.”

— Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”

We all try to seek out pleasurable activities in life. In fact, our brains are wired in a way that encourages us to do so. Eating a delicious meal, socializing with a close friend, listening to music—all of these activities trigger chemical reactions in the brain that make us feel good and encourage us to perform these activities in the future.

But this “pleasure principle” doesn’t always lead us to make decisions that are healthy for us. In the words of Mike Denton, a Clinical Addiction Counselor with nearly 40 years of experience in mental health and addiction recovery, “In the big picture, our favorite drug is more.”

This is especially true when it comes to drugs, alcohol and other addictive substances that make us crave more by hijacking the natural chemical processes in our brains.

The Chemicals that Make Us Feel Good

The basal ganglia, illustrated here with a few other areas of the brain, is associated with positive forms of motivation and the brain's "reward circuit."

In the center of the brain is an area known as the basal ganglia. When we engage in healthy behaviors like eating and socializing, neurons in the basal ganglia release natural chemicals–called “neurotransmitters”–as a reward. These neurotransmitters (especially a few called “dopamine” and “endorphins”) create a feeling of pleasure and motivate us to engage in the behaviors again.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, using certain kinds of drugs also triggers the release of neurotransmitters in the basal ganglia. The difference is that drugs and alcohol cause neurotransmitters to be released in much greater quantities than normal activities. This is what produces the euphoric “rush” of intoxication in new users.

With repeated drug use, however, the brain starts to compensate for the abnormally large number of neurotransmitters. This is often done by reducing the number of receptors on neurons in the basal ganglia so that fewer neurotransmitters can be received.

The result is that substance users no longer experience as much pleasure from normal activities and need to keep using the substance to experience even a normal level of reward. At this point, a person will be tempted to use the substance more and more, leading to dependence and addiction.

Rising above the Pleasure Principle

Quinn T. Chipley, MA, MD, PhD, stresses that people with alcohol or drug addictions are "not bad people, just people with a bad disease."

How can a person who’s struggling with addiction overcome this craving for more? An important first step is to realize that having a substance addiction does not make someone a bad person. Dr. Quinn Chipley, Counseling Coordinator at the University of Louisville Health Sciences Center, points out that brain chemistry even plays a role in who becomes addicted in the first place:

“Studies in the neurophysiology and neuroanatomy of vervet [monkeys] and humans reveal another striking similarity between the two species. Subjects who show extremely pronounced attraction to alcohol share abnormalities in dopamine, a neurotransmitter crucial to motivation pathways that link midbrain regions to the frontal cortex. The chemical dice in this brain-game of probability are differentially loaded within monkeys and humans. This group difference within Homo sapiens goes far in explaining why learning the “habits” of addiction (whether for alcohol or other substances) is intrinsically easy for certain subjects and why “unlearning” those habits for those same subjects seems nearly impossible by recourse only to clinical application of psychology’s principles.”

Fortunately, addiction can be treated successfully. Medication and behavioral therapy can be effective at treating withdrawal and preventing relapse, and detoxification can be performed as a precursor to treatment. Over time, a brain that’s been changed by substance use can adjust the number of neurotransmitters and receptors in the basal ganglia and return to normal functioning.

With the right help, people suffering from substance addictions can beat his debilitating disease and get out from under the tyranny of “more.”

Dr. Quinn Chipley is one of five expert speakers who will be presenting at Tara Treatment Center’s 10th Annual Ann Daugherty Symposium on May 22nd. We invite you to join us on this special occasion! Please register here if you’d like to attend: