We all have heard of Newton’s First Law of Motion, where “an object in motion tends to stay in motion…” The mind acts along a similar principle — we call it “habit.” What happens when a habit becomes something that can’t easily be stopped? We call that an “addiction.” Addictions, when in motion, tend to stay in motion.
Science is showing that the brain adjusts to addictions in ways that make them harder to stop. Even without physical withdrawal symptoms, addictions may be quite hard to break for this reason. Drugs which are not considered “addictive” may become so when used for very long, as the brain grows new neurons that support continued use of the drug. Something as simple as coffee, containing the stimulant caffeine, can become so ingrained that the coffee drinker struggles with breaking the addictive habit. In the Harvard Mental Health Letter, published by Harvard Medical School, the number of Americans addicted to some drug or alcohol is listed as one out of every ten.
Fortunately, there is something called “synaptic plasticity” which means that the brain is constantly adjusting and changing, learning and re-learning. Certain counter-addiction behaviors can be used to “steer out of” addiction because of this plasticity. Yes, change is possible!
The reward factor
Addictive substances give us a “reward” for taking them: temporary increased energy or alertness, relaxation, or other desirable results entice us to take more of the substance. The perception of reward is communicated through our brains via a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The brain uses the amino acid tyrosine to manufacture dopamine, and its release generates a good feeling which creates a desire for more of the reward.
Some drugs such as cocaine and heroin, as well as nicotine, directly cause spikes in dopamine levels, making these drugs quickly and highly addictive, generating a “high.” Of course, that high cannot be maintained, and it will take more and more of the dopamine spike to reach those levels. Eventually just to feel “normal” requires the drug.
Generally, the greater the reward experience, the greater the dopamine. The dopamine effect on the hippocampus, the primary memory center, is to strengthen the memory of that reward. In the emotion center, the amygdala, it creates emotional sensations that accompany the memory formation of that reward. And in the reasoning center, the prefrontal cortex, it causes increased overall activity that can reduce inhibition for a short period. All these effects increase the impact of the reward experience and desire for future similar rewards.
In an article in PubMed, published by the National Library of Medicine, brain learning, or neuroplasticity, involves many portions of the brain. As they stated, “The transition to addiction involves neuroplasticity in all of these structures that may begin with changes in the mesolimbic dopamine system and a cascade of neuroadaptations from the ventral striatum to dorsal striatum and orbitofrontal cortex and eventually dysregulation of the prefrontal cortex, cingulate gyrus, and extended amygdala.” The brain is made to learn, and it learns addictions quite readily.
MSNs and Dopamine Receptors
Dopamine is a vital component of brain activity. It is a “neurotransmitter”, meaning that it is needed to cause a nerve impulse to transfer from one brain cell to another across a synapse (or junction) between those cells. But, how those impulses are interpreted depends upon the type of nerve cell and the specific type of receptor on that cell. Neurotransmitter receptors cause the cell to react in certain ways, so it is important which type of receptor a nerve cell (neuron) has.
Medium spiny neurons (MSNs) have the dopamine receptors in the brain — they respond to the same dopamine neurotransmitter in different ways depending upon which receptor type the MSN has. There are at least five types of dopamine receptors which MSNs can have, maybe as many as seven, but “D1” (dopamine-1) and “D2” (dopamine-2) receptors are of primary interest in addiction studies, and they act in almost opposite ways. D1 reception essentially promotes reward and addiction, while D2 acts as an inhibitor. D1 tends to increase impulsivity and giving in to short term rewards, where D2 is associated with goal orientation and willingness to press toward an outcome regardless of short term reward. Many addictive drugs increase D1 activity and/or depress D2 reception, while goal-oriented efforts tend to promote greater expression of D2 response.
Metalloproteinases (MMPs) appear to be the mechanism where D1 and D2 activity result in addiction or counter-addiction. Synaptic connections in the brain form in response to experience, and MMPs are enzymes that break down the extracellular matrix around nerve cells that supports those connections. MMPs break down old connections to allow formation of new ones, and thus increase plasticity and promote new learning, as old connections between synapses are broken and new are built. If the increase in plasticity occurs around D1-type MSNs, addiction is learned and reinforced, but if it occurs at D2-type MSNs, goal orientation and self control is learned/reinforced.
In a study published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Department of Neuroscience observed “addiction-related plasticity.” In other words, they observed changes in the brain when responding to addictive drugs and when withdrawn from them. They observed drugs caused increased MMP activity on the D1 receptor neurons, and withdrawal increased MMP activity on D2 receptor neurons. So the addiction was increasing the brain’s “learning” of the reward associated with the drugs, and the brain became more impulsive and desirous of the drugs. Removal of the drugs led to MMPs increasing the plasticity of the D2-type MSNs — the brain “learning” how to do without the drugs.
Like the rest of the body, the brain responds to its environment. Addictive substances build impulsiveness and strengthen the desire for the drugs, reduce inhibition towards the addiction, and build emotional response to the substances. The longer the substance is used, the more entrenched the addiction as the brain builds more neurons to support the habit and the desire for the reward given.
The study also suggests that D2-type neurons are vital in breaking addiction. What might cause the body to build more of these neurons?
When presented with easy pleasure, whether from sugar, caffeine, narcotics, nicotine, or harder drugs, the reward cycle activates. The body tries to provide more of what is being utilized heavily. Pleasure-seeking drives the mind to form connections which drive towards more pleasure and reward. D1 receptor neurons are more in demand. Alternatively, D2 receptor neurons are more needed when we strive towards a goal, denying pleasure where necessary to achieve that goal. You become more of what you practice being.
Whether the addiction is small or large, determining a goal of halting it is the first step. The mind each one of us has is unlike that of any other creature, being able to consider what is good and strive towards it.
Another aspect of our design is often overlooked. The South Carolina study noted that emphasizing D2-reception was as valuable as de-emphasizing D1. Replacement is often a more effective strategy than a head-on denial. Our minds cannot truly focus on more than one thing at a time — to switch between them it has to park one and focus on the other. Yes, it can do so very quickly, and your thoughts can flit around, but if we focus — even meditate — on one thing, others will be pushed aside. Good can replace bad — both cannot occupy us at the exact same time, just as light and darkness can’t be in the same place at the same time. One wins over the other. While we are focusing on good, we strengthen our minds to seek good.
A simple example is when we replace high sugar foods with better quality foods: after continuing to do so, the good foods taste better to us and the sugary foods are just “too sweet” to be enjoyed any more. Simply dropping those foods without good replacements would just build a longing for them, while replacing them with better alternatives builds new habits. We set a goal to make a better choice, and as we stick to it, the choice is reinforced. The mind makes or strengthens the connections for that choice, and it becomes its own reward.
Something else we are designed to do — gain strength from others. Sometimes you need support in facing an addiction.
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
The brain is the organ that interfaces mind with body, so all factors that affect the mind will show up on the relay station (the brain). As these studies showed, the brain is constantly remodeling its house to adapt to the environment. When we do 3D Brain Imaging we can see how these conscious and more important subconscious programs play in controlling the body. When people are diagnosed with a major disease like cancer, most think it came because of poor diet, lack of exercise, chemicals and toxins affecting their systems, and most everyone agrees with stress as a factor. But let us define stress: it is an adaptive response in the brain/body to the thoughts of the mind. So let us put stress into three categories:
- The day to day stress of living in this world
- The conscious stress of your past
- The subconscious stress of your past
Which one do you think does the most damage to your body and remodels your brain?
Subconscious stress programs are subconscious — that means you do not know you have them, but with 3D Brain Imaging, they can be visualized. If they are there and they are released (this is our most powerful therapy called Heart Brain Entrainment Therapy) then the imaging, will show it, but most importantly the patient will feel like something has been lifted from them, and a peace or joy has taken its place. This is the most powerful way to heal the whole you and overcome a health challenge.
If you need guidance in your journey here are the ways:
- Outpatient Comprehensive Teaching and Treatment Program-has the most benefit of teaching, treatment, live classes and personalized coaching. This program has the most contact with Dr. Nemec with 3- 6 month programs that can be turned into a regular checking and support program for life. This is our core program that has helped so many restore their health and maintain that restoration for years.
- Inpatient Comprehensive Teaching and Treatment Program-is our four-week intensive inpatient program for those that are not in driving distance, usually over 4 hour drive. This is the program that is an intensive jumpstart with treatment, teaching, live classes and coaching designed for all our international patients along with those in the US that do not live in Illinois. This program is very effective especially when combined with our new membership program support.
- Stay at Home Program-is offered to continental US patients who cannot come to Total Health Institute but still want a more personal, customized plan to restore their health. This program also includes our Learn Membership Program.
- Membership Program is our newest program offered for those that want to work on their health at a high level and want access to the teaching at Total Health Institute along with the Forums: both Dr. Nemec’s posts and other members posting. And also, to have the chance to get personalized questions answered on the conference calls which are all archived in case you miss the call. The Membership Program has 3 levels to choose from: Learn, Overcome and Master. The difference is at the Overcome and Master levels you received one on one calls with Dr. Nemec personalizing your program for your areas of focus.