In 2016, more than 64,000 people in the United States are thought to have died from a drug overdose. According to the most recent estimates, about 21.5 million U.S. individuals aged 12 and above live with a substance abuse disorder.
While the exact causes of drug addiction are unknown and researchers do not yet fully understand what causes someone to become addicted to a drug, we do know that, over time, drug abuse triggers changes in the brain that perpetuate the addiction cycle.
For example, we now know that the brain’s reward-processing circuits are thrown off balance in drug addiction, as the brain gets an excessive amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Sometimes dubbed the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a crucial role in reward-mediated motivation and learning, as well as in experiencing pleasure.
When the brain gets too much dopamine from drugs, it learns to continue to search for that “high” in favor of the “lesser” pleasure that it would normally get from other, daily rewards, such as consuming a chocolate bar or getting recognition at work.
These neurobiological underpinnings make addiction a so-called brain disease. Despite this, until now, researchers had not come up with treatments aimed at the neural circuits involved in the condition.
Now, however, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston may have found a treatment that successfully targets these brain circuits.