Drug Addiction and Craving as a Model of Pleasure Seeking

Section 1. Human being is always oriented on the search of pleasure. Initially, it comes from satisfaction of basic biological needs like eating, bonding and sex ”“ processes which are necessary to sustain life at the individual level as well as at the global scale. And thus, pleasure reveals to be a kind of defensive mechanism to combat pain and other negative effects one has to overcome in order to survive. But once humans have learnt to simplify the way of getting this basic satisfaction, they have started the search for additional stimuli. One of the most dramatic and provocative stimuli that can drive one’s pleasure is drugs. The way the drugs cause this majestic sense of pleasure is thoroughly studied by three scientists. The first is James W. Prescott, an American developmental psychologist who published his article “Failure of pleasure as a cause of drug/alcohol abuse & addictions” in The Truth Seeker; the second is the neurophysiologic research “The Addicted Brain” conducted by Eric J. Nestler and Robert C. Malenka for Scientific Ametican; and the last is Nora D. Volkow, the Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, who makes an attempt to make the matter accessible to non-specialists in the article “Addiction and the Brain’s Pleasure Pathway: Beyond Willpower” published in Nature Reviews. On the whole, all the three articles deal with the way drugs cause pleasure and how cravings result in drug addiction. From different aspects, the authors describe how drugs affect our brains and alter the processes responsible for its normal function. Additionally, they reveal how these impacts are associated with behavioral changes coming from promoted tolerance and dependence, relapse and craving.
Section 2. James W. Prescott studied the issue of drug addiction in 1989. To go deeper into the matter, he appealed to the essays of Dr. Siegel and Dr. Weil and some other studies which discuss the roots of drug addiction. To explain where the problem comes from, Prescott undertakes a historical excursus to the early years of tribe religions, and makes a stress on religious ceremonies that included natural drug use but were further substituted by artificial drugs in order to keep the people under control of the church and priests. To this, Prescott explains the reason of drug addiction by human’s strong need for “altered states of consciousness.” According to Prescott, this need was once satisfied by religion, but people lost that method and turned to chemicals. Further on, the author turns to psychological reviews and sees pathology in the whole society driven by “extraordinary depression/alienation; anxiety/boredom; and hostility/rage” (Prescott, 1989). Deductively, he goes to the lack of love experienced in early childhood which extremely contributes to emotional pains and anguish in adulthood. To be specific, he means the failure of intimate physical affectional bonding in the maternal/infant relationship and in the father/child relationship on the one hand and the failure of intimate sexual affectional relationships during adolescent and adult development on the other hand.

For this, Prescott introduces the term of “Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation” that is approached a main cause of abnormal development of brain (in particular, structural damages and loss of opiate receptors). The psychologist has also singles out four stages in the integration of pleasure into higher brain centers and ends his study with a questionnaire on the Index of Human Affection. Thus, he concludes that inclination to drugs is much caused by sensory deprivation which changes the very sense of pleasure in one’s brain.

Section 3. Next, by 2004, when Nestler and Malenka carried out their research, many new facts in biochemistry and neurophysiology have been revealed, so they turn to be more specific in studying the ways drugs affect human brain. For this, they essentially depart from the experiments on laboratory animals like rats, mice and nonhuman primates as well as such tests as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Nestler and Malenka state that researchers have revealed what regions of the brain mediate addictive behaviors. The main term the study is concentrated on is “brain’s reward circuit” that plays a crucial role in addiction. Herein, drugs are proven to take control over this circuit, forcing it to abnormal activity and changing its reactions to natural rewards. Besides, the authors show how pleasure comes already from associations and anticipation of euphoria while the pleasure is not forgotten and equally “exposure to low doses of drug, drug-associated cues or stress trigger craving and relapse in human addicts”. These are the same neurons that “evolved to make us feel flush after eating or sex” (Nestler & Malenka, 2004) which change in structure and function under the influence of drug substances dampening pleasurable affects. It is explained that first ventral tegmental area sends dopamine to the nucleus accumbens which interprets information on how “rewarding” this or that activity is. Under drug abuse, the dopamine is flooded drastically and further, when tolerance and dependence develop, the same old dose of dopamine becomes not enough. Therefore, in the drug’s absence the addict is depressed and unable to take pleasure in previously enjoyable activities.

Section 4. Finally, Nora D. Volkow provides a guide of popular science style on how addiction is provoked and developed. She departs from the definition that human brain is “an extraordinarily complex and fine-tuned communications network” (Volkow, 2004). The same brain circuits are reported to be activated by drugs as vitally important actions. She sums up that regular drug use disrupts well-balanced systems in the human brain. As a result the addict is ready to sacrifice everything that is important for a normal being, including food and sex, just to get a doze of this “extra pleasure”. The most awful thing is that with the advance of addiction not getting a pleasure is the aim of the addict, but relieving distresses caused by the lack of substance and subsequent dopamine. The matter is, in normal functioning dopamine is produced to motivate adequate responses to natural rewards of everyday life, but drugs stimulate excessive dopamine. Then, to keep balance, the “fooled” brain reduces normal dopamine activity and the addict ends up “incapable of feeling any pleasure even from the drugs they seek to feed their addiction” (Volkow 2004). What is more, the brain regions responsible for decision-making and judgments are also altered, and the addict is no more able to think rationally and evaluate his or her own state. With the self-preservative instinct put away, the addict goes on pursuing drugs even when pleasure from them is no more achievable. Nora D. Volkow suggests to interpret drug addiction as a kind of chronic disease, as it has the same stages of development and, moreover, the same peculiarities in treatment (leaving the patients vulnerable to relapse even after years of abstinence).

Section 5. All in all, the three studies under consideration provide a model of pleasure seeking on the base of drug addiction and cravings. It has been investigated that drugs bring almost irreversible changes to human brain. However, it may occur that genetic predispositions and environmental influences (including sensitive deprivation, physical and sexual abuse and other family problems as well as social conflicts or alienation) make some people more typical to become the victims of drug abuse. By now, there is no more doubt that the mechanism of getting pleasure is a base of drug addiction, but this very process becomes abnormal and misbalanced under the influence of alcohol, nicotine, marihuana, opiates, cocaine etc. Overall, the problem begins when tolerance wanes and sensitization sets in. The intense craving underliing the compulsive drug-seeking behavior is kicked off.

It goes without saying that the aim of each new research undertaken in the field of drug addiction is first and foremost intended to find the way to cure this disease. Although at the moment there are a lot of medications that are believed to treat some kinds of addictions, they are virtually not effective as they are often just replacing one addiction by other. Combined with psychotherapy, medication show to be more effective, but still they do not affect the biochemical structure of neurons that suffered from abuse. Consequently, further research is to be directed to design proper medicine to compensate those long-term affects. Nevertheless, such neurophysiologic prospects should in no way deny the need to proceed with keen examination of social, emotional and psychophysiological factors and patterns.

Nestler, Eric J. & Malenka, Robert C. (2004). The addicted brain. Scientific American 290(3):78-85.

Prescott, James W. (1989). Failure of pleasure as a cause of drug/alcohol abuse & addictions. The Truth Seeker 9, 14-21.

Volkow, Nora D. (2004). Addiction and the Brain’s Pleasure Pathway: Beyond Willpower. Nature Reviews 5, 963-970.

Leave a Reply