The Brain and Addictive Behavior
In recent researches, investigation has been geared towards understanding the neurological mechanisms that underlie the processes of addiction, especially alcoholism. New discoveries and advances in research help people today in further understanding the mechanisms involved in the development of addictive behavior from an organic point of view. This provides a stronger basis in the medical treatment of addictive behavior.
The core of addictive behavior starts with reinforcement. When alcoholic substances enter our body, the brain senses gratification through alcohol-induced euphoria. Because the situation is rewarding, the brain signals the body to seek alcohol to experience again the feeling of euphoria. This part of the brain is the dopamine or reward pathway in which alcohol is seen as an incentive to the body that leads to alcohol-seeking behavior. In the early stages of alcoholic behavior, the positive reinforcement and motivating factors to continue alcohol drinking become very crucial in the formation of alcohol addiction later on (Gilpin & Koob, 2008).
In line with this, alcohol drinking is also precipitated by negative reinforcement in such a way that negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression, are reduced with the experience of alcohol drinking. This process is closely related to the positive reinforcement model. Furthermore, alcohol drinking also triggers or sensitizes neural pathways in our brain to the effects of alcohol that our brain ‘likes’. In turn, these likeable alcohol effects are transformed into wants then needs over longer exposure. Due to chronic alcohol exposure, the body develops a tolerance level for alcohol in which the body no longer experiences the euphoric effects by drinking the same amount of alcohol. Hence, the person starts to increase the amount of alcohol he or she drinks in order to feel the gratifying effects of alcohol. Neuroadaptation occurs with the increase in alcohol dose and chronic exposure. Thus, when alcohol is removed from the person’s system, he or she experiences withdrawal symptoms that are the total opposite of the alcohol’s effects on the body. This heightens the want and need for alcohol intake to counter the withdrawal effects, hence the alcohol addiction (Gilpin & Koob, 2008).
Gilpin, N. W. & Koob, G. F. (2008). ‘Neurobiology of alcohol dependence: Focus on motivational mechanisms’. Alcohol Research and Health, 31(3), pp. 185-195.