Despite the testimonials from millions of people worldwide who have succumbed to alcohol or drug addiction and found recovery, there remains a controversy as to the classification of its existence. While some say it’s a disease, others contend that it is ill-choice. But now science uncovers another possibility. Is addiction a learning disorder? According to researchers, learning and drug addiction connect. Though the findings may not dispel the choice or disease arguments but actually merge them into a comprehensive, common sense explanation.
Putting Addiction in Focus
For people who have never had to stare down a bottle of prescription medication and know they were going to lose that battle of self-control or fear attending a social gathering because the temptation of alcohol was well within reach, it’s hard to understand how drug and alcohol addiction can take over one’s life. Until you’ve lived it. This is part of why the stigmas about addiction and what it is remain prevalent.
Researchers from Stanford University have potentially uncovered an aspect of the brain that brings disease, choice and learning into one root cause for addiction.
Scientists monitored the behaviors of mice and how they responded to various stimuli. What they found was somewhat unexpected. The mice showed that within the paraventricular thalamus (PVT), cells actually take note of how they respond to stimuli. These responses were monitored and associated behaviors tracked. When the mice were introduced to the same stimuli over and over again, they learned a specific response and in turn, a sense of expectation about the experience.
Selective Learning Has A Lot to Do with Subconscious Choosing
The process of learning is based on the information we are exposed to, whether it be visual, verbal or kinetic and often occurs simultaneously. While much of what people encounter throughout their existence happens by will or circumstance, how we decide to decipher it has conscious and subconscious components. Here’s how it unwinds.
The Association between Behavior and Expectation
The mice were given various cues through specific scents of what was to come: a sip of water or a puff of air to the face. Each was representative of a good or bad outcome. Over time, the mice learned to expect one or the other based on the associated scent.
Eventually, the puff of air was replaced with a mild electric shock. Up until this point, the PVT neurons in 66 percent of the mice reacted to both the water and air cues. However, once the electric shock was introduced, nearly all the mice responded to it while 75 percent responded to both electric shock and water.
Interestingly enough, once the mice had their thirst satiated before electric shock was added to the case study, they were less interested in the water and their PVT was more responsive to air puffs. Researchers concluded that the animals react to what was most important to them in the moment, be it good or bad.
Dopamine Dictates Decision-Making
When people have suppressed natural dopamine response, which happens with ongoing drug or alcohol intake, the body and the brain seek ways to replenish those sources to engage a feel-good response. They come to life through cravings that need to be met through continued and increased amounts of the preferred substance. In addition, with any cause and effect, dopamine release is engaged based on what we anticipate the outcome to be due to past experiences with the same stimuli.
The case study, mentioned earlier, illustrates how the mice intrinsically choose what necessitates a response between a desired outcome or a key to survival, which can entail something of benefit or harm. This also illustrates the instantaneous decision-making of a person in the throes of addiction and drug seeking behavior.
Addiction Predisposition Is Also Found in Our Genes
Beyond PVT neuron responsiveness, addiction can come with genetic predispositions to those behaviors. Some people are born with a genetic mutation, minimizing dopamine receptors meant to recognize life mistakes. As such, learned behavior with negative outcomes will more often be repeated without a clear cognition of the relationship between the action and response cycle, weakening conscious choice. Drug and alcohol addiction is more likely to come about and continue with this genetic mutation.
Drug and Alcohol Addictions Exhibit Learned Behavior Imbalance
The benefits of the case study, and many more to come, allow neuroscientists the opportunity to dive deeper into the brain mechanisms that determine how people choose or refrain from pleasure seeking behaviors. If people can relearn decision-making, we can engage in more positive behaviors that support a healthier lifestyle and more easily overcome addiction.
Researchers also hope to ultimately control PVT activity in people by honing the ability to control what and the way we learn, through the use of light, to help addiction treatment and recovery. With it, those suffering through chemical dependency could essentially unlearn the behavior and live drug-free.
The clinical and holistic therapists at the Alternative to Meds Center specialize in science-based modalities that naturally and gently cleanse the body and the brain of toxicity due to prescription medications, illicit drugs, alcohol abuse, and environmental exposures.