A couple of weeks back in this blog we touched upon some interesting research relating to dopamine receptor activation, and the way in which this can influence the impulsiveness of our decisions.

Our attention in chapter 6 of the book was caught by Solomon H. Snyder’s account on how he and his colleagues successfully identified opiate receptors for the first time in the 1970s. During this period of time “hundreds of thousands of American soldiers” fighting in the Vietnam war were addicted to heroine, to such an extent that it was called an epidemic. One study estimated that during the war, 43% of the around 14 thousand men who returned from Vietnam had used some narcotics during their time in battle (Robbins et al., 1974). Even though the terrors of war are in practice unimaginable to us, it’s easy to understand at least a simple logic of why soldiers would resort to drugs in the midst of such chaos.

Why is it, however, that in everyday life people get addicted to drugs?

If one would really want to explore this question, there would surely be hundreds of points of views to take, even if only looking for academic explanations and answers. Sociological or economic rationales, for instance, have to our knowledge provided important insight for policy-making regarding drug addiction and abuse.

However, if looking at this question from the point of view of cellular-level action in the brain, earlier neuroscience research seems to have pointed at least a answer again to the same brain’s dopamine system and its provision of a feeling of instant gratification to the user. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine cause nerve cells to release too much of the dopamine neurotransmitter, which can make one feel “euphoric”. In addition, your brain learns to release dopamine also not only due to the drugs but due to other cues that relate to the drug use, therefore disturbing your “reward circuit”.

From a behavioural economics or science point of view, such decision to pursue immediate satisfaction was also discussed during a lecture. Our lecturer talked about preferring chocolate – which in some research has also been proven to release dopamine, and at least influence other neurotransmitters – immediately in the moment or, for example, in two hours’ time. The economics research explained people’s inability to wait for gratification even for a couple of hours, by our time preferences for “consumption”. Given the same good now or in the near future, studies show we mostly prefer taking the product right away, and this can be modeled mathematically by discounting the utility received from a good into the future. Additionally, our lecturer pointed out that often humans are also incapable of making consistent choices over time.

Increasingly, however, there seems to be a view among neuroscientists that the effect of drugs is not only limited to their influence on the dopamine system, but also to cognitive patters stored in the frontal lobe. These include decision-making abilities, planning and memory. Therefore, there are surely even more areas of overlap for neuroscience and behavioural economics, when focusing on drug abuse and addiction.

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