Prescription Drug Abuse: Who Gets Addicted and Why?
Sex, Drugs, and the Opioid-Addicted Brain continued...
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.
Even more people might experience pain pills like most people do alcohol.
It's something pleasurable in moderation, but they have no urge to overdo
But according to Saxon, about 5% to 10% of the population have brains that
are already primed for addiction. "They take the drug and say, 'Wow, that's
fantastic,'" he says. "They really want to feel that feeling
again." Soon, they seek further chances to use the drug, and increase the
Can someone know if their brain is vulnerable to opioid addiction?
Unfortunately, "there's no blood test, no scan of the brain that can
predict who will become addicted," says Levounis. While certain genes have
been associated with the risk for drug addiction, "no one gene is
responsible," Saxon says, "and we're a long way off from genetic
testing to identify people at risk."
Still, certain factors are known to increase the risk for opioid addiction.
Altogether, our genes account for 50% of the susceptibility to addiction.
Studies of identical twins, who share the same genes, prove the link. If one
identical twin develops a drug addiction, there's about a 50% chance the other
twin will, too.