SCIENCE: The Chemistry of Addiction - a video by SciShow

Scientists say we are experiencing something of a Golden Age with regards to brain research. The human brain is arguably the most advanced piece of technology in the known universe, and better understanding it is the most exciting step towards better understanding who we are.

The Chemistry of Addiction is a well-presented video brought to us by SciShow – a channel that is quite addictive itself. This particular video about the human brain and brain chemistry offers great insight into why we behave the way we do.

The Chemistry of Addiction

I'm sure the above video is rewarding enough, but I provide a summary below just to reinforce my own understanding of The Chemistry of Addiction. I have also written similar articles such as I drink therefore I am and Web Addiction 2.0 if you're interested in brain chemistry, pharmacology and addiction in general.

The Chemistry of Addiction: A Summary

Learning what chemicals make us feel good (in terms of their affects on the human brain) has essentially lead us to inventing addiction. Eating, sex, gambling, smoking, drinking and even the Internet are all examples of behaviours that can become hugely addictive.

There are over 100 neurotransmitters in our brains that respond to new information by releasing chemicals. These are often in response to how we feel in particular situations. If a particular situation or behaviour is key to our survival (loosely speaking), our brain is likely to reinforce this by releasing 'feel good' chemicals or hormones so that we will repeat certain behaviours in the future.

Getting high on dopamine

Dopamine is the most powerful excitory neurotransmitter that is released whenever our brain believes that we should take strong note of our current behaviour in order to remember it. Eating, sexing and running away from danger are examples of dopamine-releasing situations. However, dopamine is also primarily what drives addiction.

Chasing 'artificial highs' via excessive substance use or excessive pornography viewing for example, may fool our brains into releasing excess amounts of dopamine; however, it will become desensitised over time as it continuously tries to restore balance. The result is that more of a particular substance or behaviour is required in order to feel the same effects recorded to memory from first use.

Why smoking is so addictive

Nicotine has the effect of releasing large amounts of dopamine in our brains. However, in order to leverage this effect, our brains also release a chemical (glutamate) which plays an important role in memory formation. This has the addictive effect of telling our brains to remember that smoking makes us 'feel good' and reinforces the habit.

The effect of alcohol on our brains

Alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters that allow our bodies and brains to function as one. More alcohol results in slower communication between neurons, which is why we slur, crab-walk and often speak without thinking when we've had too much to drink.

There is a separate SciShow video dedicated to bath salts, which apparently contain an artificial stimulant that combines the effect of both cocaine and meth simultaneously! So think twice before you buy bath salts for your loved one this Christmas!

SciShow - The Chemistry of Addiction

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ALCOHOL: The pharmacology of booze and brains

IF there is one discovery that has arguably been the most influential in human history, it’s alcohol. Alcohol is up there with caffeine as one of the most widely used drugs in the world. It has helped shape human societies for millennia and influences nearly everyone either directly or indirectly. In fact, many anthropologists would argue that you can divide the human race into three distinct tribes – those who drink occasionally, those who actively avoid alcohol and those who seize any opportunity to drink it.

Most people will quietly organise their lives around access to or avoidance of the drug alcohol. Many animals like to drink, including monkeys and elephants, and it has been happening for millions of years. Alcohol has become so ingrained in our culture that traces of alcohol-use can be found in out DNA.

A quirk of evolution

Poisonous alcohol (image: is a naturally produced substance which first entered our world millions of years ago via a symbiotic relationship between yeast and the cherry fruit. Yeast lived within the fruit which was at risk of being eaten by various insects. To protect itself and its host, yeast began to convert the sugars in cherry fruit and produce the poisonous bi-product, alcohol, which killed any cherry-hungry insects. When the fermenting fruit was discovered and eaten by man, our long-lasting relationship with alcohol began.

There is no doubt that alcohol is poisonous to humans too. In fact just 29mils of pure alcohol (ethanol) injected into the bloodstream would kill a man. It is also a very unique and hardcore drug. Pharmacology reveals that alcohol affects the same neurotransmitters in the brain that are targeted by drugs such as cocaine, heroin and Prozac.

The pharmacology of alcohol

For most people, alcohol has a powerful calming effect. Two shots of distilled booze is the equivalent of taking a mild tranquilizer. This is why alcohol is offered on planes soon after take-off. The ‘buzzing’ effect is a result of dopamine being triggered by alcohol, which is the same neurotransmitter that cocaine targets. Serotonin makes us feel good and is triggered by both alcohol and anti-depressants. Feeling like you can take on the world after a good few drinks or feeling severely ‘spaced out’ is the same sort of effect you would feel if you were to inject heroin.

Of course, alcohol affects each of us differently and our relationship with the drug changes as we change. Body size, fitness level, metabolism and gender are a few of many factors that determine how alcohol will affect our brain chemistry. However, a recommended weekly allowance has been calculated at 24 units for men and 14 units for women per week. Twenty-four units equals two bottles of wine; 14, a bottle and a half.

Beer (image: type and social context are also huge factors when it comes to accessing one’s drinking habits. Knowing someone’s relationship with alcohol would reveal a lot about that person’s life. But for most of us, alcohol has formed a pivotal part of several social situations. Weddings, parties, graduations, funerals, promotions, birthdays and anniversaries are just a few of these. Drinking has almost become synonymous with celebrating.

The hangover

The unfortunate hangover of all this is that there has been a huge increase in the number of people admitted to hospital for alcohol-related problems. This has caused much concern for those in the medical profession and a move has been made to create a new designer drug to replace alcohol. The idea is to be able to add a pill to a soft drink and enjoy all the benefits and euphoric effects of alcohol without being harmful or addictive. Although any chemical substance that makes us feel good has the potential of becoming addictive. People can even be addicted to running for the endorphin release.

Many pharmacologists would argue that if alcohol was ‘discovered’ today it would most certainly be banned or at least more controlled than it currently is. But perhaps we don’t really want to know that much about alcohol as a drug. In the end, many of us might choose to be blissfully boozed and ignorant.

The best way for alcoholics to turn over a new leaf is to sign up for alcohol and drug addiction rehab programs.

Related Article: How wine changed the course of history

** More Quite Interesting Histories **

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