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

Add comment

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 **

2 comments so far click to post a comment

DRUGS: Why our grandparents called them "the good old days"

Have you ever heard of the Great Binge? This was a period prior to WW I where drugs were in huge supply. Not only that, but they were completely legal. Soldiers could order a drug pack for their boys on the front, which contained heroine, cocaine, needles and just about any drug that is now considered as naughty.

Below are some genuine products that were available around the same period. Cocaine tablets, Opium for asthma and Bayer's Heroin were all too common, which possibly explains why it was called "the good old days".

Great Binge Drugs from the Good Old Days: Bayer's Heroin

The Great Binge - Bayers Heroin


A bottle of Bayer's heroin. Between 1890 and 1910 heroin was sold as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. It was also used to treat children with a strong cough. Back when heroin was legal, there were no addiction treatment centers that could help a heroin addict kick the habit.

Great Binge Drugs: Coca Wine, Anyone?

The Great Binge - Coca Wine


Metcalf Coca Wine was one of a huge variety of wines with cocaine on the market. Everybody used to say that it would make you happy and it would also work as a medicinal treatment.

Great Binge Drugs: Mariani Wine

Great Binge Drugs - Mariani Wine


Mariani wine (1875) was the most famous Coca wine of it's time. Pope Leo XIII used to carry one bottle with him all the time. He awarded Angelo Mariani (the producer) with a Vatican gold medal.

Great Binge Drugs: Maltine

Maltine - Great Binge Drugs


Produced by Maltine Manufacturing Company of New York. It was suggested that you should take a full glass with or after every meal... Children should take half a glass.

A Questionable Paperweight

Great Binge Drugs - Paperweight


A paper weight promoting C.F. Boehringer & Soehne (Mannheim, Germany). They were proud of being the biggest producers in the world of products containing Quinine and Cocaine.

Great Binge Drugs: Opium for Asthma

Great Binge Drugs - Opium


No comment.

Great Binge Drugs: Cocaine Drops & Tablets (1900)

Great Binge Drugs - Cocaine Tablets


Very popular for children in 1885. Not only did they relieve the pain, they made children happy! All stage actors, singers, teachers, and preachers had to have them for a maximum performance. Great to "smooth" the voice.

Great Binge Drugs: Opium for Newborns

Great Binge Drugs - Opium for Newborns


I'm sure this would make them sleep well (not only Opium, but 46% alcohol). No wonder they were called The Good Old Days!

** More Quite Interesting Histories **

7 comments so far click to post a comment

PODCAST: The confessions of three substance abusers

GRADE 9s who inhale deodorant, teenagers who are dependent on taking acid (LSD) or ecstasy to have a good night out, and weed-addicted individuals are all too common in society today.

The social pressures and feelings of entrapment lead a lot of teenagers to abusing drugs and alcohol as a way out; or perhaps a way in when it comes to conforming with peers and trying to fit in.

In 2006, when I was doing my radio specialization at Rhodes University, it felt fitting to produce something newsworthy and important at a place where there is a major drug problem. However, I feel that this podcast on teenagers confessions of drug abuse still holds great relevance today.

It is a very real and factual account which I call the "confessions of a drug user." These individuals were brave enough to speak openly on the issue and I only hope that it serves as an eye-opener for both parents and teenagers who are caught up in the drug sub-culture.

Podcast: Teenagers confessions of drug abuse

Many victims of an ecstasy overdose are teenagers, among whom the designer drug has proven to be quite popular.

Please leave comments and share this with family and friends.


Add comment