“Just Say No” – Magical Thinking?

15 May

Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has been scientifically investigating addiction and why we can’t “Just Say No” to bad habits. Why are these behaviours so hard to resist? 

In her short video, Dr. Volkow explains how we still have problems such as drug addiction and obesity, despite the popular mantra “Just Say No“.

Dr. Volkow argues that simply willing oneself to “say no” is not a possibility for many. In studies using fMRI and brain scans to investigate the specific chemistry of addiction, one main finding has emerged showing that addicts share a common neural trait – a reduced number of dopamine receptors in the brain.

Dopamine is one of the main chemicals regulating the pleasure centres in the brain and is, therefore, a mechanism for motivating behaviour (signalling “this feels good”). Dr. Volkow found that when drug addicts are presented with a nature image stimulus, dopamine levels in the brain remain constant. However, when an image of a drug user or an image associated with the particular drug appears, there is a surge in dopamine. This dopamine rush may then further condition the unconscious addictive or “bad habit” behaviour.

Many drugs such a cocaine, heroin, and even nicotine provide a “high” or dopamine surge that the brain can’t handle. In order to cope, shut-off valves activate, resulting in a reduced number of dopamine receptors available at the synapse. This leads to decreased experiences of pleasure from the particular behaviour, and an increases in carrying out the addictive or bad behaviour.

Dr. Volkow has previously found that drugs physically damage the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where our executive control centres and decision-making process centres are located. This damage makes it difficult to regulate emotions and self-control, disabling the idealistic approach to “Just Say No“.


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