We are all well aware of how serious and, unfortunately, wide-spread drug addiction is, yet we don’t actually know what makes people so dependent of a drug after they have started using it. Even more intriguing is why former addicts, who have stopped using drugs for weeks or months, revert back to drug use, knowing full well that the substance they were addicted to in the past pretty much ruined their lives.
As I am sure you expect this article to shed light on the problem, I’m not going to keep you guessing. Two weeks ago, a team of researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine in US published a greatly revealing study in The Journal of Neuroscience. They appear to have found the answer to how cocaine affects decision-making in addicts as well as why abstinent users often choose to start taking cocaine again.
Dopamine is one of the commonest neurotransmitter in our brains. It is involved in many cognitive processes, including prediction and recognition of loss. Therefore, dopamine plays a very important role is some mental and also neurodegenerative diseases, such as schizophrenia (where dopamine levels are overly increased) and Parkinson’s disease (caused by decrease in dopamine secretion in the midbrain and degradation of dopamine receptors).
This recent study shows that cocaine acts on dopamine signalling, influencing the so-called Reward prediction error (RPE). It has been recorded, fallowing neuroimaging and pre-clinical studies, that dopamine signalling is increased in response to an unpredicted reward (which is scientifically referred to as positive RPE) and decreased as a result to a negative outcome or the omission of a predicted reward (negative RPE). The team of researchers demonstrated, therefore, that cocaine reduces the response to unpredicted loss (impaired negative RPE), while leaving the positive RPE almost intact.
In order to obtain these results, the team used 75 subjects, who were divided into two groups: 25 non-cocaine users and 50 cocaine addicts. Moreover, the second group was also divided as fallows: 25 cocaine users who had taken cocaine within 72 hours of the study and 25 cocaine users who had abstained from taking cocaine within 72 hours of the study. All subjects had to play a computer game that involved prediction and guessing.
As you may expect, the non-users responded normally to both unexpected loss and predicted reward, as well as to predicted loss and unpredicted positive outcome. On the contrary, the cocaine users responded far less to unexpected negative outcome. This means that their brains were reacting less strongly to the negative result of a prediction than the normal subjects’ brains.
Moreover, and this is the most fascinating part, the users who hadn’t taken cocaine within 72 hours, showed deficit in positive RPE, whereas the other addict group (who had consumed cocaine in the previous 72 hours), had unaffected positive RPE, but impaired negative RPE. Also dysregulation in serotonin system in drug addicts might lead to this kind of results (serotonin signalling has been registered in response to negative prediction, in normal brains).
So, to cut the story short and in a more simplified version, if you use cocaine, you are more likely to omit the bad things in your life. But if you take cocaine and then you give up, you get the opposite result: you become less able to enjoy positive aspects. This might account for the fact that people who stopped taking drugs tend to start using them again after rehab. Does this mean we have to become drug addicts? It seems like this is the solution. Well…NO! Definitely not! And I’m not saying this because I might get into trouble for promoting drug use, but there is a very important reason for that. We DO need to anticipate and recognize negative outcomes. This is how all creatures in this world survive. This is how more advances creatures (like humans) are capable of making good decisions and learn from mistakes.
Some might argue, though, that it is preferable to be happy all the time, despite how much you fail and that there is no such thing as actual failure, as it’s all about how our own brains perceive the environment. What do you think? Is this true or not? Either way, I strongly suggest you don’t start using drugs!
Image modified by Isuru Priyaranga