Addiction: A Pavlovian Response to Drugs and Alcohol

Dr. Purushothaman
January 12, 2014


Addiction is a neurological disease (National Institute on Drug Abuse Drugs, Brains and Behavior The Science of Addiction) that profoundly impacts a person's ability to control their own behaviors and actions. This disease is an associative learning disorder that renders even the most intelligent and willful people completely under the control of a substance. But while the evidence of the clinical nature of this disease is convincing, there are still those who refute that addiction is indeed a disease or disorder at all. However, the fact of the matter is that addiction is the result of powerful involuntary associations in the brain that create permanent neurological pathways to service addiction processes. This is true regardless of the socio-economic background you come from, and it also seems to be true regardless of what species is in question.
Addiction is a disease of mice and men- literally. A recent study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin showed that mice not only developed addiction rapidly, but also learned to associate with and even seek out environments where they were exposed to certain substances, such as alcohol and cocaine. (2) The mice were motivated to create these associations when the reward and pleasure centers in their brains were activated by a substance like cocaine. But the study went one step further in an effort to uncover the real nature of these seemingly Pavlovian associations.
Some mice were given alcohol for several days in an amount equivalent to human binge-drinking while a control group was administered only saline. After this phase, the mice were then placed in a compartment with two rooms; each with different colored and textured walls and floors. Initially the mice spent an equal amount of time in these rooms, but when given cocaine in one specific room, the mice then showed a clear preference for the room where the cocaine was administered. And while even the mice that were given saline in the first part of the test developed this associative preference, the mice that had been given alcohol previously spent TWICE as much time in the cocaine room. (Nina Bai Mouse Study Suggests Why Addictions are Hard to Forget April 27, 2011)
This tells us that the initial exposure to alcohol taught the mice to associate the feelings related to dopamine release caused by alcohol (or any other substance) with similar feelings produced when subsequently given cocaine. But these associations were not just physiological in nature- they were also environmental. This is because when the reward center of the brain is activated, neurons in the brain recognize and learn the context surrounding the event- including the physical environment and anything in it.
This study is important because it shows that the environments and context surrounding a person's drug use or alcoholism will likely serve later as a relapse trigger. Songs, people, places, smells- anything that a person will consciously or subconsciously associate with the use of a drug or alcohol can cause the neurological pathways that service addiction processes to create an urgent need in the afflicted individual to seek out and use their substance of choice. This is why successful addiction and alcoholism programs such as residential inpatient treatment and intensive outpatient treatment place such an emphasis on reality-based therapies in order to help clients develop skills to cope with or break those associations completely.
Addiction is a disease and it can happen to anyone. If you feel like associations from your past are calling you to hit the streets again, then please stop what you are doing and take action right now. The sooner you arrest the associative process of addiction, the sooner you can begin to reverse its effects.

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