Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review: The Addictive Brain

The Addictive Brain is an audio course about how addiction works, how it affects the brain chemistry (and why addiction occurs) and (to a lesser extent) how addicts can break their dependency. I picked it up as a "daily deal" for $2, and it was a good deal.

The lecturer, Professor Polk, speaks at a slow pace, so I sped up the course by accelerating his speech to 1.25 times normal. I can tell you there were several professors at the Cal I wish I could have done that to! Nevertheless, the material is great. He goes into the neurochemistry of the brain in order to give you an idea of how the brain works, and then walks you through each drug to analyze which receptors the drug binds to in the brain, and how and why it has the effect it does. As he does so, he frequently provides a history of the drug as used in human society, as well as the process by which it became isolated, refined, used, and then (almost invariably) abused.

The drugs covered are:
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine (and meta-Amphetamine)
  • Marijuana
  • Morphine (& Opiates)
  • Gambling, Porn, and Video Games
Of course, the last 3 aren't drugs, but of course, can also be abused and result in addiction. I'm surprised TV watching and internet addiction isn't on the list, as I'm sure you and I can think of people who exhibit withdrawal symptoms when either of those aren't available.

Fundamentally, addiction is an unintended consequence of our brain's ability to learn. You can call it a bug or a security hole if you like. Addictive substances (and behaviors) create a feedback loop which makes use of the dopamine feedback loop to trigger "this was better than expected!" learning. This leads to an unconstrained craving simultaneous with a reduction of the inhibition circuits in the brain. Each drug potentially triggers this in a different way, but your vulnerability to addiction is also highly genetic.

Each section also discusses ways for the addict to break his or her addiction. It's by no means easy and the success rate is dismaying low (none of the drugs appear to have a surefire way to achieve better than 40% quit rates!), but Professor Polk speaks with compassion about how the process works.

All in all, I learned quite a bit in this audio course, and can recommend it.

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