Sunday, October 28, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Drugs

High-tech imaging reveals the chemistry of addiction

Drug intoxication produces characteristic waveform signatures in the mammalian brain. The search for specific biological markers in the brain was made possible by positron emission tomography, better known as the PET scan. The idea is simple: Doctors inject test subjects with radioactively tagged glucose, which passes the blood-brain barrier with ease. The more electrochemically active portions of the brain burn extra glucose for energy. By noting precisely where the tagged glucose has gone, and converting that information into a digital two-dimensional array, a PET scan serves as a neurobiological map of brain activity in response to specific stimuli. Functionally, PET scans are pictures of the brain, showing specific areas that “light up” during the performance of a task, or in response to a drug.

Neuroimaging techniques like nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, provide another level of detail. With MRIs, scientists could study the brain as a living work in progress. They could create a three-dimensional picture of the brain, with the sagittal, transaxial and coronal planes all visible at once—almost a brain hologram. For the first time, addiction scientists could watch areas of the brain light up with activity under the influence of specific mood-altering chemicals.

Two areas were of particular interest. One was the nucleus accumbens, which was involved in the regulation of dopamine and serotonin synthesis. The other was the locus ceruleus—a tiny area of the brain saturated with cells involved in the production and release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is another important neurotransmitter in the story. It is also known as noradrenaline, and is essentially identical to adrenaline (the latter also called, confusingly, epinephrine). For practical purposes, the four terms are essentially synonymous.

Alcohol, cocaine, the opiates, and other drugs made these two areas of the brain bloom with activity on the MRI and PET scans. These snapshots of your brain on drugs specifically showed that psychoactive drugs of abuse, the ones that altered mood and emotion, did so at the very sites in the brain known to be involved in regulating emotional states. As a general rule, the same areas of the brain tended to light up no matter what addictive drug was under study. Whether it was a molecule of rapture, or a molecule of sorrow, sooner or later it went surging through the brain’s limbic system--a diffuse aggregation of mid-brain structures involved with emotion, memory, mood, sleep, and a host of specific behaviors ranging from appetite to risk-taking.

That the subjects also showed characteristic brain activity when they quit doing drugs was of equal interest. Dr. Kenneth Blum and his coworkers at the University of Texas Health Science Center demonstrated that certain waveforms occur in the locus ceruleus when abstinent addicts experience cravings. The locus ceruleus helps control levels of the original “fight or flight” chemical, norepinephrine, and when an addict in withdrawal panics, the locus ceruleus lights up like the Fourth of July.

Other studies of the nucleus accumbens showed abnormal firing rates in scanned addicts who were deep into an episode of craving. Drug hunger in abstinent addicts, it appeared, was not all in the head, or strictly psychological. Cravings have a biological basis.


Anonymous said...


It's good to know that I am not alone! It has been two weeks and I am felling alot better.To all those going through it, it does get better.

Anonymous said...

Marijuana is as addictive as eating ice cream. I been smoking my half life and went without alot of times and just was a bit moody. lASTS THREE DAYS.Thats not addiction. Do heroin for a month then stop cold turkey. thats real withdrawl.

Brian Finch said...

I have a friend who's been a heavy smoker and can go without when traveling no problem. I was a heavy smoker and stopped and had severe detox.

Just because one person doesn't have a problem quitting you can't go around mocking those who do. This is exactly why many who have issues with it stay away from NA or other 12 step groups.

I'm also HIV positive. Now someone HIV positive may not need medications and not progress to any major clinical problems for a very long time, others are not so lucky and need to go on medication. Just because one person can go 18 years without meds, doesn't mean everyone can toss their medications out the window.

That's a long way of saying you can't extrapolate one persons experience and say it's everyone. Additionally I've been into all the drugs, crystal meth, you name it.

I found the pot the most difficult thing to quit. In fact I thought I was having night sweats because of HIV, worrying that somehow I was getting sick I started doing research to find out what I was experiencing was, for some, quite normal, and in fact had nothing to do with fact of being HIV positive.

Unlike anonymous posters out there who spout crap and have no empathy for anyone other than themselves, I will post my real name. Now try that with your ice cream and let me know how it goes.

Mike said...


I found this site researching the symptoms of "pot withdrawal". Today is the fourth day without it. I have smoked pot for 42 years! YES, 42 YEARS. The reason that I quit is that I have anxiety issues, and on Saturday night when I lit up for the last time, I realized just how much it increases my anxiety. I feel thrilled that I am finally kicking the habit, but at the same time, I feel very anxious and unsettled. But I KNOW that if I lit up now, my anxiety would skyrocket, and I am not going to. I WILL BEAT THIS.
And then after I am successful in quitting the pot, I have to stop smoking cigarettes. I am 62, and I guess it's time to grow up. LOL
Good Luck to all of you. I hope the best for you. Mike

Dirk Hanson said...

If it's any consolation, there are a LOT of people your age who are now going through exactly what you're going through with pot and cigarettes.

Mr.Semonis said...

Bill S KY

i never thought qutting pot had withdrawls but its true.
i exsperence most of the symtems the worst one is diarerra man.
this is my 10th day without feeling better i am and will quit.

i beleave exercise is a key thing for me go for a walk drink plenty of water.

the truth is facing realality that pot hides your true self covers alot of problems.
i beleave these people mocking others still smoking pot and i've smoked since the seventys good luck

Anonymous said...

This blog has kept me sane ! Without it I don't know how I'd cope !

I was a heavy smoker from the age of 18 till now, I'm now 27. I would smoke around 5 large joints after work and into the night on weekdays and from when I woke up till I fell asleep on weekends. There wasn't a task I would try to do without doing it with my good pal MJ.

Slowly this turned me into an introvert. I'd choose to stay at home with MJ rather than go out with mates. Mostly because my mates were wasters and enjoyed taking pills and powder and drinking way too much ! I didn't even realise that this made me a waster.

This is my second time quitting and it's as equally as horrible as the last ! I have horrible fatigue, aches and pains, terrible anxiety - usually in the mornings and around dinner time - almost no appetite, even water. My guts are in a mess, probably due to the anxiety, chest pains, tightness in the chest and I can't shake the feeling that theres something seriously wrong with me !

Reading this blog reminds me that it's all part of withdrawal and damn that makes coping a whole lot easier. As I'm typing this I feel clear and I am typing incredibly efficient on this tiny iPhone keyboard which I never do when high.

I'm now on day 9 and things are getting a bit better. I'm less anxious as I have been ut it's not totally gone. I have this constant feeling that I'm in another planet. Slight diziness a bit shaky. Knowing I'm not alone really helps ! The constant feeling of 'how long will this last' and 'is there something seriously wrong with me' is the worst and seems to magnify the fatigue and anxiety.

Even though I've been through this before and know that I'll be fine in a month or two doesn't help. The withdrawal doesn't make me think logically. Luckily I have a great gf and family helping me through this.

Thanks Dirk ! This blog has saved me a lot of worry !

Dirk Hanson said...

You're welcome. Sounds like you're going thru a pretty typical course of withdrawal. Knowledge is power!

Pot quitter. Dont fall for illusion of chemical change said...

Do your research. U become dependent and u damage neurochemical regulation of ur emotions and thoughts. Marrijuana will trap u inside ur own brain. Go a month without it and get back to me on this one.

Anonymous said...

Sasha said...
Hi, I am 39 this month and have been smoking for over ten years at this point i need to stop! I have all the flu like symptoms accompanied with excessive sweating with little exertion. Basically I sweat like a heroine addict which doesn't make good for employment nor social settings. The reason I would like to stop is I had day surgery and the Doctor's were concerned about the amount of morphine they had to give me. Basically, the doctor was concerned they where coming close to a controlled overdose of morphine. When we smoke weed we need twice as much pain killers as a non smoker. This was scary as the doctors were concerned i believe i should be concerned! But i am glad to see the flu symptoms are real; dizziness and nausea due to dehydration; dreams being suppressed; demotivated; anxiety; DEPRESSION; INSOMNIA; lack of appetite; introvert personality; mood swings; irritability; heighten sex drive; without weed lack of sex drive; bloating and gas; constipation; diarrhea; cognitive difficulties; skin blemishes and pimples; darkened lips and tainted eyes which now seem permanent; cold seats night and day; shortness of breath; COPD = chronic obstruction pulmonary disease; raspy voice. Even worst I just feel wasted and horrible. My plan is to stop this weekend and keep you all posted. My plan is to detox using herbal remedies combined with a brisk walk at least twice daily. Stopping cold turkey must be the way for me as a tried to cut down my usage but that doesn't seem to be the way for me as i revert back to heavy usage. My daughter is my motivation a\s she has had alot of tragedy and not once in her 20 years a\s she become an addict. So, I am assuming I can handle life pot free plus, its time for me to look at he world with great eyes and a sound mind thus my body should be at its finest. To all addicts regardless of the stage be strong and remain focus. I do not have family nor great friends but I have my religion and this website as an outlet and for strength. Later for now I'm on the road to recovery by the grace of God!

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