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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HUMAN MORALITY: How much lies in our genes?

I’VE recently been immersed in an era where mechanical augmentations are used to replace body parts; where humankind starts to become more machine than biological squishyness. This is not reality – not yet, at least – but is a video game called Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which depicts a portrayal of what the world might be like in 20 years time.

Darth Vader (image: giving.typepad.com)The biggest appeal of this popular title is that it raises significant questions concerning human morality. What makes us human? What makes people good or evil? These questions have been a part of philosophy and the human imagination for millennia and have now entered the realm of crime and punishment, with a new field of investigation called Neurolaw. In a nutshell, those accused of capital crimes can now appeal to have their mental states assessed by a neurologist during trial.

What we can be sure of is that it is not in our nature to take the life of another. We all share a moral instinct to protect life, specifically the lives of those we care about. However, when this moral instinct is suppressed, and people are forced to kill others, they can lose all respect for life and be filled with hatred, fear and confusion. This accounts for the high number of suicides during and after the war in Vietnam for example.

This is of course, unless one is psychotic. The majority of serial killers throughout history – the Ted Bundys and Jack the Rippers – were found to be psychotic. They lacked the human emotion that the rest of us share – specifically empathy, which made their killing sprees seem as regular as watering the roses.

The Moral Molecule and Warrior Gene

Luke Skywalker (image: tatooine.fortunecity.com)Neuroscientists have determined that psychopathy is mostly genetic, but also depends on brain structure and a chemical called oxytocin, which has become known as the “moral molecule.” Neuroscience has also isolated a gene which has become known as the “warrior gene.” Whether this nasty gene is triggered or not depends on upbringing and environment. An abusive childhood is the most common trigger to unleash the warrior within.

If a psychopath has a pleasant childhood on the other hand, the outcome can be vastly different. It has been discovered that the “successful psychopaths” are largely to be found in big business or powerful positions in society - almost four times as many as in the general population in the U.S. Psychologists suggest that corporate culture is the ideal environment for someone with such a disposition, where the lust for thrill-seeking can be sated.

Characteristics of the Psychopath

The correct brain structure and a lack of the moral chemical, oxytocin, can make for the most charismatic leaders. Although lacking profoundly in empathy and being supremely egotistical and shallow, psychopaths have at their disposal a large repertoire of human behaviors and emotions which can be easily mimicked. Psychopaths can put themselves in the skin of others intellectually, read their body language and use this to charm, intimidate or manipulate others.

Morality Test

So how can we tell whether or not someone might be a psychopath at an early age? One ‘morality test’ that has been done with babies is to put on a puppet show to do with sharing. A central doll plays with a ball before passing it to another doll to play with, which soon passes it back. The ball is then passed to a third doll which promptly runs off with the ball. The baby subjects are then encouraged to choose between the ‘good’ puppet and the ‘bad’ puppet. Experimenting with hundreds of babies revealed that 70% of them choose the ‘morally good’ doll and indicates that from an early age we are drawn towards kindness. In such experiments it is hoped that the remaining 30% perhaps fell asleep during the show.

So if you have any little ones in your life, go now and shower them with hugs and kisses and tell them how much they are loved, no matter how much they might protest.

  • This information on human morality and the moral molecule was largely derived from a BBC Horizon documentary called Are You Good or Evil?

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TED TALK: Building a 3D Model of the Mammalian Brain

Here’s something that might blow your neo cortex. Neuroscientists are confident that within the next 10 years they will be able to construct an artificial human brain that functions very much like the real thing.

This is according to brain expert Henry Markram — director of Blue Brain, a supercomputing project that models components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail — and simulate their activity in 3D. Markram’s ultimate goal is to build a detailed, realistic­ computer model of the entire human brain.

Talk of neurology tends to be very scientific by nature, so I have attempted to dissect Markram’s work from a talk he gave at TED — a small non-profit organisation devoted to "ideas worth spreading". TED started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from the three worlds of technology, entertainment and design, and the talks given in these fields are simply fantastic.

Brain Builders: The Neocortical Column

The Neocortical Column - Brain Builders

The holy grail of neuroscience is understanding the design of the neo cortical column, which could inevitably help us better understand perception and reality (Photos: Blue Brain)

Brain Builders: Building a Brain

Understanding the human brain is a key step in evolution that will better equip human beings to understand one another and the societies in which they live. Being able to study and experiment with working models of the human brain will also do away with the need for animal experimentation.

In his talk, Markram pointed out that there are over two billion people on the planet today suffering from mental disorders. The drugs that are used to treat such disorders are largely empirical and far from conclusive. Understanding the human brain may lead to more concrete solutions to treating people with such disorders.

Henry Markram - Brain BuildersThere are many theories regarding how the brain works. One that is drawing the most attention according to Markram (pictured right) is one that theorises how the brain creates or builds a version of the universe and projects this around us. This particular theory has been part of philosophical debate for centuries. However, with brain simulation, this theory can finally be tested and explored further.

Markram highlights decisions as the main factor influencing our perceptual bubbles. Upon walking into a room for example, one has to immediately process all kinds of information regarding what you see. Decisions regarding the size of the room, its dimensions, the height to the roof, all the objects in the room etc. have to be made in an instant. Markram posits that 99% of what we see is not what enters through our eyeballs, but rather what we infer about that room.

Brain Builders: Our Brain in Evolution

If you are an evolutionist, you may know that it took the universe 11 billion years to develop the brain into what it is today. The exciting news is that this development has by no means slowed down. On the contrary, our brains are currently evolving faster than ever before. In fact, because of the restrictiveness of our skulls, we can already see how the growing brain has starting to fold in on itself to accommodate more grey matter.

Brain BuildersThe neo cortex is the latest evolutionary achievement. This is arranged in columns and is where all our more complex functions occur. The holy grail of neuroscience is understanding the design of the neocortical column, which could inevitably help us better understand perception and reality.

Neuroscientists have systematically dissected the neo cortex over the past 15 years. Understanding how the neo cortex works largely involves understanding how our neurons are arranged and communicate with each other.

The biggest design secret of the human brain, according to Markram, is diversity. Not only is every neuron different, but their arrangement differs too in each and every human being. What we do all share is the same fabric and chemistry, which is how we can all perceive and understand the same reality­. This is also believed to be species-specific, which might explain why we can’t communicate across species — more naturally at least.

To create a working model of the neo cortex of a rodent (consisting of 10 000 neurons), Markram and his team required an entire laptop to power a single­ neuron. A refrigerator-sized supercomputer was built (basically consisting of 10 000 laptops) and neuroscientists have began to gain the first glimpse of what happens in our brains when they receive a stimulus.

Stimulating stuff!

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TECHNOLOGY: How it may be rewiring our brains

THE Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing that this is an evolutionary change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.

Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specialises in brain function, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions.

But while technology can accelerate learning and boost creativity it can have drawbacks as it can create Internet addicts whose only friends are virtual and has sparked a dramatic rise in Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses.

Small, however, argues that the people who will come out on top in the next generation will be those with a mixture of technological and social skills.

"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills"
– Gary Small

In his newly released fourth book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, Small looks at how technology has altered the way young minds develop, function and interpret information. In his book Small explains that the brain is very sensitive to changes in the environment such as those brought by technology.

A study of 24 adults using the Web revealed that experienced Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners did.

"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others," said Small.

"The environment is changing. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."

Small said this multi-tasking could cause problems as the tech-savvy generation, whom he calls "digital natives," are always scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even damage neural networks.

"There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the ability to read emotional expressions and body language," he said.

"But you can take steps to address this. It means taking time to cut back on technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control of it.”

•Gary Small is the director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA.

- original copy supplied by Reuters

Related posts:
Web Addiction 2.0
Is technology rewiring out brains?

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