Drug Binges May Be More About Avoiding Emotional Lows

Posted on December 9th, 2013

Substance addiction is the common term for a damaging pattern of drug or alcohol intake that centers on repeated cravings for continued substance use and an inability to halt use despite the presence of obviously detrimental consequences. According to prevailing theories, the required circumstances for addiction arise when substance users repeatedly seek out the pleasurable effects of drugs or alcohol. However, a study published in November 2013 in the journal Psychopharmacology questions this model. The authors of the study believe that substance addiction may instead occur when drug users repeatedly attempt to avoid negative feelings associated with short-term drug or alcohol intake.

Substance Addiction Basics

As a rule, the potential for substance addiction appears when a habitual substance user experiences long-term alterations in normal brain function and develops a chemical dependence on the basic effects of alcohol or any given drug. In people taking prescribed medications in a proper manner, dependence is not necessarily a problematic situation. However, in prescription medication abusers and users of illicit/illegal drugs, dependence can easily act as an intermediary step to the onset of addiction. In drinkers, alcohol dependence is literally synonymous with alcohol addiction (i.e., alcoholism). In some cases, addictive substances produce their brain effects through an ability to mimic the actions of naturally occurring, mind- and body-regulating chemicals called neurotransmitters. In other cases, addictive substances produce their effects by altering the balance of existing neurotransmitters that the brain naturally manufactures.

Pleasure as an Underlying Motivation

The vast majority of potentially addictive substances increase the levels of a specific neurotransmitter called dopamine. The brain relies on this chemical to create sensations of pleasure and euphoria, and when dopamine levels increase to any considerable degree, an affected individual experiences a notable spike in his or her pleasure-related feelings. In the prevailing model of substance abuse and substance addiction, a person who experiences high levels of pleasure from drug or alcohol use gets into trouble when he or she repeatedly tries to reproduce that pleasure through continued drug or alcohol intake. Unfortunately, the desired effects of substance use typically diminish over time, so a person must gradually increase his or her intake levels to approximate the intensity of an initial encounter with drugs or alcohol. Ultimately, it is this ongoing (and ultimately fruitless) attempt to recreate the “highs” of initial substance use that supports the brain changes required for the development of an addiction.

New Findings

In the study published in Psychopharmacology, researchers from Rutgers University used laboratory experiments with rats to reassess the motivations that underlie the onset of addiction. These rats were given free access to cocaine and allowed to ingest the drug over a six-hour time period.

Initially, when given access to cocaine, the rats made vocal sounds that indicated the presence of pleasurable sensations related to drug use. However, in a fairly brief amount of time, the rats stopped making these vocalizations even though their cocaine intake continued. Eventually, when the available quantity of cocaine fell below the amount desired by the rats, the animals began making other vocal sounds that indicated the presence of unpleasant sensations rather than pleasant sensations. Based on these results, the study’s authors concluded that pleasure-seeking only acts as a motivation for cocaine intake in rats for a short amount of time. After that time, continuation of use is at least equally motivated by a need to avoid the unpleasant feelings associated with an inadequate drug supply.

“Our results suggest that once the animals started a binge, they may have felt trapped and didn’t like it,” said Rutgers Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience professor Mark West. “This showed us that negative emotions play an equal if not more important role in regulating cocaine abuse.”

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published believe their findings indicate that avoidance of unpleasant sensations may play at least as significant a role as the search for pleasure in the development of the drug and alcohol use patterns that set the stage for substance addiction. If their conclusions are correct, other researchers and treatment specialists may have gained an essential piece of information that allows them to improve their understanding of how addiction works in human beings.

Human studies are important, West said, but with these animal studies, it is clear that we should be placing just as much importance on the negative as being a trigger for drug abuse and deal with that as well.”

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