Why people become addicted – deltaFosB

By David Joel Miller.

Is there really something different in the brains of addicted people?

Yes, there really does seem to be a physical change in the brain that accounts for why some people become addicted to chemicals, drugs in particular, and behaviors also. These brain changes may explain why and how people move from just experimenting, trying new novel exciting things, to the point of being addicted. Once addicted, the brain begins to demand more of the chemical or the behavior it has become dependent on.

One possible explanation for this brain change is deltaFosB.

It was quite by accident that I came across a description of deltaFosB and how it was causing a behavioral addiction. That instance had nothing to do with drugs, alcohol or chemical dependency but came from the field of research on erectile dysfunction.

Erectile dysfunction was once considered purely a problem among older men and presumably their partners. Recently we have discovered there is a group of men who are developing erectile dysfunction at an amazingly young age.

The common denominator in this early onset of erectile dysfunction? Watching pornography. A few views appear to be no problem but those who watch a lot gradually develop a dependency on the watching of porn and become unable to be aroused by a real physical partner. The brain has rewired itself to become dependent on or addicted to porn to achieve sexual arousal.

For more on this see: Your Brain on Porn.

For those of you who like to watch – there is a YouTube TEDx Talks video on this research titled The Great Porn Experiment.

These brain changes do not happen suddenly but a little at a time.

Research on cocaine, morphine, nicotine, ethanol (drinkable alcohol) and Delta (9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (Delta (9)-THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, found they all produce specific changes in the brain. These changes do not happen suddenly from one dose but gradually over time the levels of deltaFosB increase and at some point, different for different people or different for different mice, and the brain begins to rewire itself to depend on the drug.  Interestingly enough each drug changes the brain in a different characteristic way.

Patterns of addiction for different drugs involve different changes in the brain. For more on this see: Distinct Patterns of ΔFosB Induction in Brain by Drugs of Abuse by Perrotti LI, Et. Al. Department of Psychiatry, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas.

A full explanation of the chemistry involved is beyond my expertise or the scope of this blog but I have included a few links to some resources on the topic for those of you who are so inclined.

Wikipedia describes the role of deltaFosB this way.

“The ΔFosB splice variant has been identified as playing a central, crucial (necessary and sufficient) role in the development of many forms of behavioral plasticity and neuroplasticity involved in both behavioral addictions (associated with natural rewards) and drug addictions.”

How many doses does it take to become addicted – Gene Expression.

Genes are a lot more complicated than we used to think. When I went to school back in the post dark-ages era, we thought genes were yes or no things. You inherit your gene for eye color, hair color, height and so on from your parents in a predictable, dominant-recessive way. Right?

Not really.

There is a thing called gene expression.

My gene for hair color dictated dark black hair. At least in my teens, it did. Those of you who have seen my blog bio picture realize that most of my hair is now gray, Ok maybe we should call it white. How did the gene for my hair color change?

As we age, or under the influence of environment and substances our genes can “Flip.” That switch in our genes moves and now that gene for black hair becomes the gene for white. The same thing happens for behaviors and for drugs.

That chemical that used to be just an extra add-on for your pleasure becomes something you must have just to feel passable.

Here is a specific study on the process for those who take cocaine.

Expression of the transcription factor deltaFosB in the brain controls sensitivity to cocaine.

Now we have an explanation, of sorts, for how someone can use a substance or do a behavior for a while with no problem and then at some point the switch flips and they are now addicted to that drug or behavior. Presumably, this would also allow us to determine which behaviors fit the model as true behavioral addictions and which are just bad habits.

Can we flip that switch back? So far we have not found a way to turn an addict or an alcoholic back into a non-addicted person. You can dye your hair or you can let it go but once you turn gray you are stuck.

Be careful with the behaviors you practice and the chemical you use. They may be changing your brain.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books


One thought on “Why people become addicted – deltaFosB

  1. Pingback: Is addiction real? Does it have a cause? | counselorssoapbox

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