Mind Over Matter: Psychologist Explains the Biology of Addiction

By Paul Gaita 10/31/14

Dr. Brad Lander has shown how a small part of the brain controlling motivation and pleasure is the key to understanding addictive behavior.

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For those individuals whose response to addiction is “why doesn’t he or she just stop?” Dr. Brad Lander has a very simple but effective explanation that involves no 12-step issues, no questions of faith or any other program.

Lander screens a video that shows laboratory rats with electrodes connected to the nucleus accumbens, a small part of the brain moderates feelings of motivation and pleasure, and is integral to addiction and depression. In the video, the rats can press a bar in their cages which sends a signal through the electrodes to the nucleus accumbens, delivering a hot dose of pleasure that invariably becomes a compulsion for the animals. The rats will press the bar at the expense of all other actions until they die. The video shows that the jolt of pleasure becomes so all-consuming to the rats that they will cross an electrified grid to reach the bar. In the end, it becomes all about the fix at any cost.

Lander, who serves as clinical director of addiction psychiatry at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, knows that people are more complex organisms than rats. But under the influence of addictive behavior, both display what he describes as “squirrel logic."

“Anything that stimulates the reward pathway is going to be interpreted as something that necessary for life and needs to be repeated,” Lander explained. “Your squirrel brain wants what it wants when it wants it. It doesn’t understand future. It doesn’t understand consequences. It doesn’t understand the impact of its behavior. It wants to run, it wants to jump, it wants to hit, it wants to scream.

The introduction of addictive substances or behavior to the brain triggers squirrel logic, setting off a devastating chain reaction of chemical and biological transformations: dopamine floods the system, producing a euphoric feeling that also prevents the body from absorbing the serotonin necessary to modify emotional response.

The body is also unable to find proper rest, which prevents their memories from the normal “download” process that occurs during sleep and creates a sort of amnesia. The physical response to drugs in the system is as unsettling as the mental and emotional reactions; the brain displays actual craters in its surface, while brain activity slowly plummets over time.

Brain functions such as perception, impulse control, judgment, and even learning become severely impaired, while endorphin production becomes almost non-existent, leaving the individual more susceptible to physical and emotional pain. In short, the addict becomes another animal altogether, unrecognizable to even his family and friends.

As many addicts have come to understand, recovery is possible. “The human brain is very malleable,” said Orman Hall, director of the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team in Ohio. “As serious as the effects of someone engaging in addiction is, many people show improvement if we provide the right kind of environment and the right kind of treatment.”

For Lander, this means sweeping changes to the addict’s way of life. More sleep, exercise, a healthy diet, and relaxation or meditation can also help to produce positive results. “My goal in treatment is to make [addicts] bulletproof so there is nothing they can’t deal with.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.