“Never Enough”: Neuroscience of Addiction

“…(T)he brain’s capacity to learn and adapt is basically infinite.” And that, in brief, is why for the addict  it’s never enough, states a behavioral neuroscientist who’s authored a new book aptly titled Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction

An addict in long-term recovery, Judith Grisel‘s past use of many and varied substances included marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol, among others. Moreover, her use and/or abuse occurred, notably, in her teens to early 20’s, when the brain, not fully mature, is more vulnerable.

As neuroscience has been Grisel’s career path, for years she’s now been able to study the effects of all kinds of substances on the brain. From an NPR interview, some of her conclusions: “Marijuana is both like cocaine and like alcohol. So it’s like cocaine in that its actions are very specific, and it’s like alcohol in that those actions are all over the brain…It does one thing, but it does it everywhere. So for cocaine, it does one thing, but it does it in just a few pathways. Alcohol does many things all over the place. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, does one thing more or less, but everywhere, and that thing is to enhance communication between cells, to enhance the message. So to kind of turn up the gain or the volume on a particular message that neurons are communicating.”

In a similar vein, Kirkus Reviews offers the following information about Never Enough:

‘The brain’s response to a drug,’ writes the author, ‘is always to facilitate the opposite state; therefore, the only way for any regular user to feel normal is to take the drug.’ The neurobiology of addiction is imperfectly and incompletely known, she writes; there is certainly a genetic component, while brain structures shape and reshape depending on what is passing through them. For instance, if cocaine is a kind of laser hitting a certain point, marijuana is ‘a bucket of red paint’ that touches many neural centers with its feel-goodness. As for alcohol, suffice it to say that the ‘primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain’ gets caught up in the process, which helps explain some of the stupider things people do when drunk. It also explains why in moderate doses, anxiety is quelled while in greater doses it is activated, going back to that homeostasis model.

Grisel doesn’t stick to writing about the above-mentioned substances, though. Coffee, nicotine, and other of the less controversial ones receive her treatment as well.

According to Publishers Weekly, although Grisel’s knowledge is ample, her answers are lacking: “Weaving anecdotes of her ordeal—some funny, others embarrassing—with basic brain science, she explains how drugs work, why some are more effective than others, and how addicts differ from nonaddicts…Critical of social customs where drinks are offered as congratulations, she bemoans sobriety as ‘lonely.’ Concluding that addiction is complicated, she offers some insight but unfortunately, if perhaps necessarily, leaves readers of her thoughtful book with no solutions to the many problems associated with addiction.”

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