A new study out of Australia finds that the development of drug addiction is related to brain levels of serotonin. Researcher Sarah Bradbury at Victoria University in Wellington recently announced the findings of a research project she carried out to determine the role played by neurotransmitters in the onset and continuation of drug addiction. For the purposes of her research, she concentrated on MDMA (Ecstasy) and cocaine, but she believes the results she obtained will apply to additional intoxicating substances as well. According to Bradbury, the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin present in the brain when a person first uses cocaine or MDMA has a strong predictive value for addiction.
Serotonin and Addiction: The Hidden Connection
Serotonin deficits are associated with mood disorders, most specifically depression, and Bradbury’s findings suggest that people with low levels of naturally occurring serotonin are far more likely to travel down the road to dependency and substance abuse should they choose to consume intoxicants. Both cocaine and Ecstasy increase serotonin concentrations when they circulate through the brain, and this compensatory effect may increase the intensity of the euphoria for users who were previously serotonin-deficient. The contrast between normal and drug-enhanced states of mind might be more noticeable and therefore more impactful (addiction-inducing) in these individuals. The good news is that normal-to-high serotonin levels at the moment of first drug consumption seem to have a protective effect, preventing users from falling more deeply into destructive drug use patterns. The neurotransmitter equation does change somewhat, however, as a compulsive drug habit develops. As addiction unfolds, serotonin balances no longer play a decisive role. From then on it is the presence of the neurochemical dopamine that makes the biggest impact. Dopamine is associated with pleasurable experience, and when levels drop it can encourage drug users to consume more and more intoxicants in order to bring the good feelings back. But in the initial stages of drug use, it is serotonin that makes the difference, meaning that strategies designed to increase serotonin levels in the human brain could help to declaw addiction before it ever has the chance to sink its sharp talons into the vulnerable hearts of its victims.
Drugs, Diet and Exercise: Regaining the Serotonin Edge
Medical researchers focus much attention on the possibility of developing drugs that can alter brain chemistry and inoculate people against the risk of addiction. But there are other proven methods for increasing the brain’s production of serotonin, if that is the chemical that has the most impact. Physical exercise and diets with a rich nutritional profile are both known to boost the manufacture of serotonin, which tends to fluctuate based on the overall status of a person’s health. Neurotransmitter imbalances often develop in the first place because of bad personal habits, so the “low-serotonin-causes-drug-addiction” theory may not be quite as simple as it appears. Healthy behavior in general may be the most reliable form of vaccine to protect against addiction, and changes in lifestyle could be just what the doctor ordered for many addicts attempting to overcome their drug dependencies. But for other people, drugs that stimulate the production of additional serotonin might be the ideal alternative. In the end, knowledge about serotonin’s role—and dopamine’s role, for that matter—in the creation of drug addiction should prove highly useful, regardless of what treatment regimens ultimately emerge from the ongoing research.