Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Dopamine Hook: Why the Net and Gaming Are Addictive

The word addiction is derived from a Latin term for "enslaved by" or "bound to." Anyone who has struggled to overcome an addiction -- or has attempted to help someone else to do so -- certainly understands what these terms really mean.

Addiction, unfortunately exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing engagement with it despsite significant negative consequences.

For decades, medical experts believed that only alcohol and certain drugs could cause addiction. Neuroimaging technologies and more recent research, however, have clearly shown that certain pleasurable activities or behavioral processes, such as gambling, shopping, and sex, can also co-opt the brain.

The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or even a satisfying meal. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct neurochemical signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accubens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex.

Dopamine release in this nucleus is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to this region as the brain's pleasure center. All drugs associated with abuse, from nicotine to heroin, cause a particularly powerful surge of dopamine. The likelihood that the use of the drug or participation in a rewarding activity will lead to addiction is directly linked to the speed with which it promotes dopamine release, the intensity of that release, and the reliability of that release.

As it turns out, interaction with the Internet and video gaming quickly stimulates the pleasure center in the brain, causing a release of dopamine that is both intense and reliable. This new information helps us understand why the Internet and gaming are so difficult to control and why children, teens, and adults experience intense cravings, tolerance, and ongoing engagement despite negative consequences.

Once the dopamine hook is in place it is extraordinarily difficult to modify behavior and it is crucially important that the person who is experiencing addiction to the Internet or video gaming go through a sustained period of being unplugged or detoxing. Without a sustained break from the dopamine surges there is no way to learn new behaviors that can produce pleasure. In my next blog. I will discuss how it is possible to retrain the pleasure center in the brain to release dopamine when it is stimulated by healthy, life-affirming, off-line activities.