Chemical dependency and substance use disorders fall under the category of mental health disorders. The term drug abuse is sometimes used to differentiate between the use of intoxicants other than alcohol. Addiction has long been a challenge in the United States. While addiction happens all over the world, Americans are responsible for consuming more than our share of both prescription controlled substances and illicit drugs per capita.
The rise in the popularity of opioids which began in the 1990s has led to skyrocketing addiction rates as well as some alarming overdose statistics. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost 92,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2020 and the majority of these were opioid-related deaths. It is believed that a combination of aggressive marketing of pain medications by pharmaceutical companies combined with increasingly potent and available street heroin contributed a great deal to these worrying statistics.
The Science of Drug Abuse
Drug abuse is a complex behavior and the illness of addiction is still being studied. While we don’t have a complete understanding of the way addiction works in the brain, we know more now than ever before. A great deal of time and money is being invested into combatting addiction because of the toll addiction is having on our country and its people. What we do know is that drug abuse is reinforced by the mechanism of addiction. Addiction occurs because controlled substances act upon the brain’s pleasure centers. They stimulate the production and/or inhibit the reuptake of neurotransmitters. Specifically, neurotransmitters serve in part as “reward chemicals” (namely dopamine) as well as those we need simply for focus and a sense of well-being.
Some of the neurotransmitters involved in addiction include:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
Ordinarily, our brains use these chemicals to regulate mood, reward positive behaviors, help us focus, and more. Neurotransmitters are essential to brain function and drug abuse makes them run haywire. By dramatically increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain suddenly, drugs like cocaine and heroin (and all opioids) create intense euphoria. The problem is that nothing in the brain’s natural ecosystem can compete with that.