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Dopamine: Abusing Drugs Reduces Ability to Find Pleasure

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Dopamine: Abusing Drugs Reduces Ability to Find Pleasure

Addiction expert Dr. Mark Gold shares a study and his thoughts on how drug abuse affects dopamine levels

After seeing the Blackfish documentary on the deaths at Sea World attributed to killer whales held in captivity, I brain scanfound Dr. Gold’s explanation of what dolphins and whales can teach us about dopamine a much gentler subject and a welcome relief. He had read an article with a l-o-n-g title in the Journal of Experimental Biology: “Forward shift of feeding buzz components of dolphins and belugas during associative learning reveals a likely connection to reward expectation, pleasure and brain dopamine activation” and shared what he took away from it.

Here are his thoughts and his personal experience with this subject – written superbly, as usual.

When dolphins and whales squeal, they may not be sending food signals to their friends. They could just be shrieking with pleasure. After measuring the time delay between a dolphin or whale receiving a reward and the animal’s squeal, one researcher noticed that the lags were about as long as the time it takes for the chemical dopamine to be released in the brain.

Dopamine has been described as a pleasure neurochemical and clearly helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The new data may suggest a role in sheer joy across the animal kingdom. Drugs of abuse target, access and then hijack these systems. In my work with methamphetamine, for example, we showed that continual targeting of dopamine pleasure cells undermined their structure and damaged them. In people, we see changes in their brain reward thresholds after drug use so that things that previously caused pleasure just didn’t do it anymore. This is how some drugs of abuse cause early age-related memory change or Parkinson’s disease.

Some ex-addicts describe this change in their brain as the cause of them to get less out of some previously pleasure-filled activities and moving toward other risks, extremes and I’ve seen some sky diving. This is not necessarily a permanent change but can accelerate with continued use-abuse. Treatment and long-term recovery and time, with healthy eating, exercise, meditation-yoga-mindfulness, and living can return this brain reward threshold change almost to where it was beforehand.

Because the time it takes for the animals to squeal is about the same as for a release of dopamine, the dolphins and whales may be making these sounds of out sheer delight, scientists argue in the August 15 Journal of Experimental Biology.

Good food for thought. These ideas reminded me of something a relative of mine suffering from addiction once said: “There are no kicks anymore.” I didn’t know if he meant kicks in life itself or in getting high. He may just have meant both.

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