By Paige Pearcy, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published January 13, 2013
I will never want just one drink, and I keep having to remind myself that.”
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The pace and character of Paige’s storytelling was a story in itself: She would slow down and look at her hands as she spoke about times when the drinking caused harm, or in moments where there is black and she doesn’t remember. At other times — times where she was proud of what she has overcome or accepting of the events — she spoke to me as though she was a teacher of survival.
Paige is an alcoholic in recovery. However, her drinking tendencies didn’t fit the stereotypical definition of an “alcoholic” — she never drank alone, she didn’t start drinking when she woke up and her schoolwork didn’t plummet. But, she did drink to a blackout state almost every night.
She came to college not having experienced alcohol — told to stay away from it in high school as both an athlete and someone with a family history of addictive tendencies. And she did.
When Paige started at the University, she was told by her mom to rush a sorority as a means of making friends. During her time in the sorority, she frequently encountered alcohol and decided to start drinking.
“I’m slightly awkward and quiet,” Paige said. “So then I discovered alcohol and that was the “magic elixir” we call it, as something that made me someone different, which I didn’t realize then.”
Unlike Paige, Jake’s addiction started earlier in his life. When he started at the University in winter 2012 he was already in recovery. Jake first had issues with drugs and alcohol when he was in high school.
“I started having issues with drugs around 16 years old,” Jake said. “That escalated pretty fast through my sophomore, junior (and) senior years of high school, and I’d say after my junior year things were pretty hectic. Things with my parents were very rocky, and I couldn’t stop using.”
But why Paige and Jake? Why were they susceptible to becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol early in life? Paige figured genetics had to do with it, Jake said circumstance. I sought to learn the science behind addiction from Psychology Prof. Terry Robinson, who teaches a course on the subject and conducts research that explores addiction and the effects drugs have on the brain.
According to Robinson, addiction is rooted in a primitive brain system humans have developed for survival called the dopamine-reward system. It’s responsible for impulses like human attraction to items like bananas and other food to help them survive.
Robinson said some of the leading research on the causes of addiction involves an over-activation, or hypersensitivity, of the dopamine-reward system in the brain that is due to repeated drug use. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is a small molecule released from nerve cells in the brain into spaces between nerve cell endings called synapses, carrying signals to other nerve cells.
“What we think is going on in addiction is because these drugs produce a surge in dopamine, and they produce an unusually large surge compared to natural rewards, … they render all of the stimuli associated with drugs with pathological motivational value so that then they become excessively wanted,” Robinson said. “… They have this property to tap into this dopamine system that’s there just to mediate natural rewards.”
In other words, when someone uses a drug, its properties cause the brain to release more dopamine than it normally does and the user feels compelled to use them again — they end up wanting drugs more than they want the things that help them survive.
However, there is a popular misconception about dopamine — that it encourages “liking.” Robinson says this idea is false.
“The role of dopamine in reward is to mediate the wanting, the desire for it. And in the brain the wanting and liking are separable,” Robinson said. “And, in fact, people will report the drugs aren’t so great anymore in terms of the pleasure they get, but they still want it more and more and more.”
With repeated drug use, the brain changes in ways that are proposed to be similar to learning. As the brain changes and the dopamine system becomes “sensitized,” the effects of the drugs increase.
“You can sort of think of (sensitization) as the inverse of tolerance,” Robinson said. “Usually when you think about being repeatedly exposed to drugs you get less and less drug effect, that’s tolerance. And that’s true, tolerance develops to some drug effects, but other drug effects show sensitization — that is they get bigger and bigger, suggesting that the neural systems that mediate these drug effects that sensitize are also becoming hyper-sensitive if you will.”
As she spoke, Paige recalled how her drinking escalated. She remembers when she had her first blackout — where she was and the less-than-pleasant conditions in an unknown place when she woke up.