By Bill P.
The human body is a wondrous thing. When a foreign substance, such as alcohol, a toxic chemical, is ingested in large amounts over a considerable period of time, the body “adapts” to the substance, developing tolerance and becoming physically dependent upon it. This changes our brain chemistry. These take place in the neurons’ receptor sites, altering the balance of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and in transmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine.
Neurotransmitters are substances that convey data from one neuron to another. Neuromodulators resemble neurotransmitters but differ from them in that they tend to remain in the synaptic gap between neurons at levels depending on receptor uptake. For example, serotonin levels are increased by medications which inhibit uptake. They are frequently used to combat depression. Dopamine levels are increased to lessen the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. An excessive increase in dopamine, however, may result in hallucinations.
Deep in the lower recesses of the brain, close to its junction with the brain stem and the spinal cord, lie the more primitive areas (nucleus accumbens) such as the amygdala in the limbic system, sometimes colloquially referred to as the “lizard” brain. This, a product of an earlier evolutionary phase of brain development, responds to physical needs like hunger and thirst, and stimuli that produce fear, anger, and sexual appetite. It is pleasure seeking, demands immediate gratification (“I want what I want when I want it and I want it right now!”), and, when denied what it wants responds with child-like rage.
The ingestion of alcohol over a protracted period leads to physical and chemical changes that foster dependency and addiction. When the alcohol supply diminishes, the primitive brain seeks to distort the more rational thought processes of other brain areas. For the addict, this conflict within the brain results in a divided self. One part craves the alcohol that will satisfy the addicted part of the brain and tries to override the rational areas of the brain that are now increasingly numbed or anesthetized by long-term alcohol use. The other part knows the damage that the addiction is doing and wants to break free of the alcohol.
Programs such as Rational Recovery offer techniques to enable a person to listen to the “inner voice” (referred to as “The Beast”), disabling it and preventing its influence over the normally rational self. This “inner voice,” called the AV (addictive voice) by Rational Recovery, responds to alcohol-induced changes in brain chemistry and neurology by sending crude messages to a numbed and underdeveloped cerebral cortex such as “it’s fine to have just one more,” and “that first drink did no harm, so I guess I can drink like everybody else at this party.”
Rational Recovery claims that once The Beast has been recognized, brought under control, and successfully caged the urge to drink will disappear.
Recent findings indicate that the amygdala, which forms part of the primitive portion of the brain, develops more rapidly in adolescents than the more rational areas of the cerebral cortex. The amygdala deals with sensitivity, our response to fear, and our reactions to risky situations. Adolescents are more prone to experience fear, for example in certain social situations, and have greater difficulty unlearning automatic fear responses. For a further discussion of this see “Why Teenagers Act Crazy,” by Richard A. Friedman, a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York (New York Times, June 29, 2014).
Teenagers are also prone to be risk takers. If in addition, they are socially awkward, shy, withdrawn, and lonely they are even more vulnerable. When they experience uneasiness, again, such as in social gatherings, they may respond by self-medicating with alcohol or with pharmaceutical psychostimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, the sales of which increased more than five-fold in the decade from 2002 to 2012. To make matters worse, the drinking culture at many high schools and colleges poses a challenge to vulnerable students. They may graduate from college not only with debt but with the beginnings of serious addiction.
Scientific research also indicates that alcoholics may have inherited genetic characteristics that cause their bodies to react to or metabolize alcohol in atypical ways. These people may have inherited a marked sensitivity or allergy to alcohol. Studies in England have revealed that single base-pair point mutations in a particular gene (Gabrb1), an important part of the GABAA receptor in the brain, have a particularly strong effect on the brain’s pleasure center (the nucleus accumbens) of laboratory mice, causing them to prefer alcohol containing liquid (primarily wine) over water at least 85% of the time.
Other research suggests that persons prone to addiction may have abnormalities in an area of the brain known as the medial forebrain pleasure circuit, where the neuromodulator dopamine plays a crucial role. On this see a recent study by Neuroscience professor David J. Linden of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine entitled The Compass of Pleasure (New York: Viking Press, 2011). You can also see the book by the well-known scientist-writer Marc Lewis called Memoirs of An Addicted Brain- A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs (New York: Public Affairs, 2012).
I was responsible for my alcoholism since it happened “on my watch.” When I became alcoholic, it was also my responsibility to do something about it, to get myself into recovery, and that took me too long because I was a slow learner. In denial, I thought I could drink moderately. Eventually, I learned I was wrong. I wish I had had the help of others on the internet, but that didn’t exist in those days. I should have sought the support of other recovering alcoholics in AA or elsewhere. That would have been the “higher power” which could have speeded my recovery. But that’s all in the past. I must live in the “Now.” I am old now, and the future is uncertain. So “now” I hope to help others. That’s why I have written this.
About the Author, Bill P.
Bill P. has had a long and successful career as a law professor, retiring in 1997. Since then he has focused on helping others with alcoholism and drug addiction. He has a web-site, Alcoholism, and the Higher Power, that offers guidance on how to utilize AA despite its “god stuff.” He also routinely posts on soberrecovery.com. Bill does not believe himself to be an agnostic, much less an atheist, but he appreciates what agnostic AA meetings have to offer. He lives on the east coast with his wife and an exceptionally wise and loving English Cocker Spaniel.
The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org