Q&A: Drug Abuse, Dopamine, and the Brain’s Reward System

A Q&A with a research scientist on the latest Research Update.

While the intense feelings of pleasure and reward of early drug use can play a role in continued use, it is only a small part of the neurophysiological cycle of addiction.

In this Q&A, Bethany Ranes, PhD, research scientist with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's Butler Center for Research, comments on the latest Research Update, "Drug Abuse, Dopamine, and the Brain's Reward System."

Q. What do you hope professionals glean from this Research Update?

A. The article is summarizing recent, state-of-the-science findings in the field of neuroscience. Many of the studies referenced are from within the past year. While there are no doubt professionals with a high competency in the field of neuroscience and its ties to addiction, this is often an intimidating field for addiction professionals who have little or no experience with neuroscience and its relation to thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It was our hope that this guide could provide technical and sophisticated information from a complex field in a practical and straightforward way.

The key takeaway is that the brain experiences specific physiological and chemical changes in response to substance use that lead to dependence, and these changes can make it very difficult for chemically-dependent individuals to stop using; however, in learning about these changes, we can reduce their impact on recovering patients, and ideally improve long-term recovery rates.

Q. What implications do these findings have for treatment?

A. By understanding the physiological changes that happen during use—and the subsequent changes that occur during abstinence—professionals can more effectively understand how to assist their patients with cravings.

These chemical changes in the brain can also be mediated by medications that have similar chemical effects, which supports the emerging use of less-addictive pharmaceuticals to manage cravings during early recovery.

For Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation specifically, this research is the backbone of our COR-12™ programming, which pairs evidence-supported anti-craving medications (i.e., alleviates the brain’s dopamine response) with traditional Twelve Step treatment methodology.

Q. Where can professionals learn more about this issue?

A. The field of neuroscience is a rapidly-growing area, especially in regard to addiction. As technology improves and scientists learn more about how the brain functions, new findings are very common. The best way to remain up-to-date on this issue is to review emerging literature from journals that specialize in this type of research. High-impact journals include titles such as Trends in Cognitive Sciences, The Journal of Neuroscience, NeuroImage, and Neurobiology of Learning.

The Butler Center for Research is a great resource, as we are well-versed in neuro-cognitive aspects of addiction, and we are always happy to explain any current information or find additional reports in a specific area. Our Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Library is also a great resource for finding new studies.

Q. What does the future hold for treatment in light of these findings?

A. It is difficult to say what the future may hold in such a new field of study—we learn critical new information every day! However, by understanding how drugs and alcohol impact the brain physically, we can accurately start to estimate the mechanism and severity of addiction in more objective and systematic ways, and therefore develop more specific and effective treatments for substance dependence.

Also, by understanding why and how some chemicals may cause more severe reward reactions in the brain than others, we can more successfully develop non-addictive, anti-craving medications that can reduce the physical urge to use alcohol or other drugs. This will allow our patients to focus more effectively on the counseling and psycho-educational components of their recovery.

Read an excerpt or download the entire Drug Abuse, Dopamine, and the Brain’s Reward System Research Update.