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Brain Neurotransmitters and Addiction

September 5th, 2007 · No Comments

Electrical signals in the brain are sent using chemicals called neurotransmitters. All addictive drugs affect the production, release, or elimination of neurotransmitters. The major Neurotransmitters implicated in addiction are noted below.


Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT) is synthesized from dietary tryptophan and its primary function is regulation of sleep and mood. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with mood disorders such as depression.

Medications called specific serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac and Zoloft, increase serotonin levels but can be very dangerous. You should consider taking the essential amino acid trytophan instead. Check with a holistic doctor for advice.

Norepinephrine (NE)

NE’s common function is associated with arousal and alertness. It is synthesized from the essential amino acid tyrosine. The levels of NE fluctuate throughout the day and therefore there are periods when we feel more awake and alert, while at other times we are tired and sleepy.

Certain drugs of abuse, such as stimulants or “uppers”, increase alertness and arousal and cause talkativeness, restlessness, and agitation because of their action on NE systems.


Dopamine release gives us the experience of pleasure and therefore causes us to want to repeat the behaviors necessary to acquire the reward in the future.

It’s interesting that amphetamine and cocaine both increase the amount of dopamine. However, cocaine achieves this action by preventing dopamine reuptake, while amphetamine helps to release more dopamine.

So, these drugs with similar effects produce their actions through entirely different processes. In turn, addiction to the two drugs may call for somewhat different types of addiction treatment.


Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is synthesized from glutamate (an amino acid) and is found in very high concentrations throughout the brain. It is considered an “inhibitory neurotransmitter”. Because GABA has inhibitory effects on neurons, any drug that increases the actions of GABA will decrease general brain activity and can be considered a “downer” or depressant. Depressants include alcohol, sleeping pills such as Ambien, muscle relaxants such as Valium, and barbiturates such as Secobarbital. Some depressants are very powerful and can cause coma or death.

The Most Addictive Drugs

Different drugs have different effects on the neurotransmitters. For instance, cocaine and methamphetamine are much more addicting than THC (marijuana) because they increase dopamine levels more quickly and to a greater extent.

According to James Stoehr, author of The Neurobiology of Addiction, the most addictive substances are cocaine, particularly smokable crack cocaine, amphetamines, (especially methamphetamine), the opiates such as heroin, morphine, and painkillers, and nicotine, which is perhaps the most addictive psychoactive drug.

Other drugs of abuse, such as alcohol, Ecstasy, Ketamine, and prescription depressants among others, possess slightly fewer addictive properties but can also lead to similar self-destructive behaviors and addiction.

Drugs Cause Faulty Decision Making

One of the classic signs of drug or alcohol addiction is continued use despite harmful consequences.

Addicted individuals will continue to use drugs or alcohol despite the mounting harmful effects to their health, family and employment.

Several studies have demonstrated that chronic drug use alters the brain’s frontal cortex where we make decisions about the consequences of our actions. Street drugs cause the prefrontal cortex to overvalue reward, undervalue risk, and fail to learn from repeated mistakes.

Therefore we can look at addiction as being a continuous pursuit of pleasure that is caused by the drugs affect as well as by the loss of behavioral control and decision making due to the drugs disrupting the frontal cortex.

For more detailed information, read the book: The Neurobiology of Addiction by James Stoehr.

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Tags: Drugs and Brain Disorders · Street Drugs

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