Prescription Drug Abuse: Who Gets Addicted and Why?
Sex, Drugs, and the Opioid-Addicted Brain
Opioids, like all commonly abused drugs, stimulate the areas of the brain
that perceive pleasure. This results in the initial euphoria or sense of well
being that many opiates produce. But these areas do more than just make us
happy, according to Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Center of New
York and an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
"Activity here tells us what's important in the world," he says.
Finding and eating food, drinking water, having sex, caring for children:
these and other activities necessary to survival cause the reward system to
release a tiny dose of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. "It feels good, and so
we're likely to repeat that activity later on," Levounis tells WebMD.
Repeat abuse of opioid drugs floods the system with dopamine, which
contributes to the euphoric rush of prescription drug abuse. "From the
brain's perspective, this is something worth repeating," says Levounis.
As an addiction-susceptible person uses opioids again and again, the reward
system begins to wrongly learn these drugs are as essential to survival as food
or water. Experts believe that the nerve cells of the brain actually undergo a
"They often can't articulate it, because these brain areas are so far
below conscious control," says Saxon, "but on some level they truly
believe that if they don't get the drug, they'll die."
This explains the changes in behavior that go along with opioid addiction:
neglecting responsibilities to family and friends, performing poorly at work,
or losing interest in sex. "When these pathways get hijacked, the salience
[importance] of everything else goes down," explains Levounis, "and the
person loses control of their life to their drug of abuse."
Opioid Addiction: Hard to Predict
Everyone's brain has a reward system, and millions of Americans use
prescription pain pills -- or even misuse them for a short time -- without
developing opioid addiction. What determines who becomes addicted, and who
Despite opioid drugs' reputation as "happy pills," not all people
are wired to enjoy their effects. In many people, nausea and dizziness outweigh
any euphoric rush from the drugs. "They don't like it that much, and they
have no interest in taking it again," Jamison tells WebMD.