How Addiction Lights Up Our Brains: Reviewing how the Neurotransmitters Dopamine and Glutamate affect Addiction By Gary Lange Ph.D., MFT, NCGCApril 3rd, 2011
When we eat great lasagna, get a warm hug or compliment, use a drug or addictive behavior, or even anticipate one of these: our brain lights up! What happens in the brain when we experience pleasure—including the pleasure induced by addictive behavior? Briefly, three core areas of the brain and two neurotransmitters play a role in eliciting the pleasure or the “high”. Addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling and problematic behaviors, interrupt the normal balance of the brain and neurotransmitters. They can have lasting negative effects on the addicted person, but with recovery and abstinence the brain can re-set itself so that they can again find joy and fulfillment in things other than the addictive behaviors. Each day we are learning more and more about how the neurotransmitters in our brain affect our behavior. The way it “lights up our brain” can be quite complex, but for simplicity sake, this article will look at just two neurotransmitters and three parts of the brain. Three areas of the brain affected by addiction are the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), the prefrontal cortex, and the Nucleus Accumbens (NA).