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Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: Alcoholism is a brain disorder it is not my opinion or a theory or concept that I created. It is what science has found to be true .
Author: Fraser Trevor
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Mesolimbic dopaminergic and serotonergic pathways. (Photo credit: Wikipedia ) The reward pathway, also known as the mesolimbic pathway ...
Mesolimbic dopaminergic and serotonergic pathways.
Mesolimbic dopaminergic and serotonergic pathways. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The reward pathway, also known as the mesolimbic pathway or the pleasure pathway, resides in the center of the brain and is what drives our feelings of motivation, reward and behavior. Its primary job is to make us feel good or “reward” us when we engage in behavior that is necessary for survival, such as eating, drinking water, being nurtured and procreating.
It’s also responsible for making sure that we repeat these behaviors over and over to ensure survival of the species. It achieves this goal by giving us feelings of pleasure when we engage in these behaviors. In other words, it reinforces behavior by giving us pleasurable rewards.
This pleasure is given by releasing neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that make communication between nerve cells possible. The critical neurotransmitter involved in the reward pathway is dopamine. However, there are two other crucial brain pathways that make use of dopamine—the nigrostriatal pathway and the tuberoinfundibular pathway. It is these two pathways together with the reward pathway that make up the dopamine pathway. Therefore, any drug that impacts the reward pathway also impacts these other dopamine pathways as well.
All drugs, and remember alcohol is a drug, stimulate the dopamine pathway -- reward pathway. Some drugs work by stimulating the release of excess dopamine, while others block receptor sites; however, the end result is that the brain is flooded with high levels of dopamine. They also impact the serotonin pathway and other crucial neurotransmitters like GABA, glutamate, acetylcholine and endorphins, but we’ll be focusing mostly on dopamine.
GABA is our main inhibitory neurotransmitter. It works as a natural tranquilizer, stops us from being impulsive and prevents over stimulation and also plays a major role in alcohol addiction. Glutamate is important because it’s needed for most of the neurotransmission that takes place. People with imbalanced levels of GABA have problems with impulse control, anxiety, nervousness, restlessness and irritability to name only a few, while glutamate is associated with obsessive tendencies.
Serotonin plays a major role in mood, sleep, appetite, pain and regulating body temperature. It also contributes to good feelings of well-being and produces intense euphoria when overstimulated. People with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression often have a problem in their serotonin and dopamine pathways. Both dopamine and serotonin are sometimes referred to as our “happy hormones.” Without them we feel empty and depressed, flat and lifeless.
Endorphins are the bodies built in natural pain reliever. They regulate emotional and physical pain and also influence mood, self-esteem, relaxation and feelings of well-being.
Dopamine gives us pleasurable feelings. It makes us feel good, confident, relaxed, and instills a heightened sense of overall well-being. It improves mood, alertness and libido. When it's overstimulated it produces intense euphoria.

Reward Pathway and Alcohol Addiction

Here's an example of how the reward pathway works: You're hungry and you see a big plate of spaghetti in front you. Your five senses gather information about what you see and send a signal to your brain. Your area of the brain that controls memory tells you that if you eat this plate of spaghetti, it will make you feel good, so it tells you to pick up the fork and eat it.

When you eat it, your five senses tell the brain you're eating something good and that your stomach is getting full. At this point the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine from the reward pathway, which gives you a little surge of pleasure. This is your reward for eating the spaghetti.
The reward pathway then connects with other areas of your brain that control memory and behavior and tells it to remember that eating spaghetti makes you feel good. This reinforces that you will repeat this behavior again, to receive the reward and feel the good feelings.
Here's what happens in the reward pathway when you ingest alcohol or drugs: They bypass the five senses and within seconds go directly to the brain’s reward pathway. Instead of just a little surge of pleasure, they stimulate the release of excessively high levels of neurotransmitters, which results in an immediate surge of extremely intense pleasure. The amount of dopamine released by drugs of abuse can be two to ten times higher than the amount released by natural means, such as food, and the effects usually last much longer, which is the primary factor in alcohol addiction.
This is what is commonly called the "high." The reward pathway connects with other parts of the brain and tells it to remember that drugs and alcohol create this incredibly good feeling and this is an extremely powerful reinforcement that you'll repeat again so you'll continue to have the pleasurable experience.
The impact of the excessively high levels of dopamine on the brain is so powerful that the brain must find a way to adapt to these powerful surges. One of the ways that it does so is by desensitizing itself or reducing the number of dopamine receptors at the synapse and reducing the amount of dopamine it releases. This results in what we call "tolerance." Once the feelings of pleasure have dissipated, it will now require more of the drug to achieve the same results. The more often you use the drug, the more sensitized your receptors become and the more drugs you require to get high. Alcohol addiction is developing.
With repeated use of a drug, the neurons, which are where the neurotransmitters like dopamine reside, in the brain become dependent upon the drug -— they can no longer function normally without it. The brain no longer produces or releases the essential neurotransmitters that allow us to feel pleasure on its own. When this happens, the user feels depressed and unable to experience pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable to them and they experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not in their system and, thus, they will use again in order to feel better. They now need and crave the drug of abuse to simply bring their dopamine levels back to normal.
Over time, as the brain is forced to continue to adapt to alcohol or drugs, the other areas of the brain outside the reward pathway become affected. The circuitry of the brain that is responsible for memory, learning and judgment becomes hardwired to perform addictive behavior almost innately. It disrupts crucial brain structures that are critical for controlling behavior, especially behaviors related specifically to alcohol or drugs. It erodes one’s ability to display self-control and make good decisions. Thus, the drug user is now a drug addict. In the case of alcoholism, alcohol addiction is now full blown.
The faster a substance reaches the brain’s reward pathway, the more addiction potential it holds. The quickest route to deliver a drug to the brain is through smoking it and, thus, why substances like crack cocaine and cigarettes are so highly addictive. The second fastest route is through injection, while the third quickest is snorting or sniffing and the least quick is ingestion.
This is why many people advance from one addiction to another. They start out with sugar, caffeine or cigarettes. As the brain adapts and needs more and more to get the same feeling, sugar no longer does the trick, so they move on to cigarettes, after a while cigarettes no longer provides the same relief, so they move on to alcohol. After a while alcohol no longer does the trick and they move on to cocaine and so on and so on.
Although we're talking about alcohol addiction on this page, the process of addiction I've described applies to any addiction regardless of the substance or activity. They flood the brain with neurotransmitters that makes us feel good. Over time this destroys the neurons, then the brain doesn't produce neurotransmitters adequately anymore, the brain needs more and more to function normally. Any substance or activity that stimulates the reward pathway has the potential to be addictive, particularly to brains that are already vulnerable.
This process is also true of serotonin, GABA and endorphins. Alcohol also stimulates a large surge in these neurotransmitters, which leads to depletion and dependence on alcohol to function adequately. Thus resulting in cravings to bring them back to normal and alleviate symptoms like anxiety, depression and irritability.
Additionally, alcohol and all psychotropic substances, mimic our natural neurotransmitters, meaning they can occupy the receptors, which tricks the brain into thinking it has too many and thus it quits producing them. This leaves the brain dependent upon the alcohol or other addictive substances to perform the duties of the impaired neurotransmitter.
It’s also important to note, that the fact that neurotransmitters and the reward pathway are at the root of alcohol addiction, and addiction in general, is not my opinion or a theory or concept that I created. It is what science has found to be true .
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