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Growing up, the neuroscientist Judith Grisel took small sips of alcohol during family events, but it was only at age 13 that she experienced being drunk for the first time. Everything changed.
"It was so complete and so deep," he says. "All of a sudden I felt less anxious, less insecure, less inept in coping with the world: suddenly I was full and OK in a way I had never been."
Grisel began to pursue that feeling. Over the years, he has struggled with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. But along the way, he also became interested in the neuroscience of addiction.
" I'm always interested in the mechanisms of things," he says. "And when I felt I had a disease, I naturally felt that it would have a biological basis, and I thought I could study that biological base and understand it and then maybe fix it."
Now has It's been 30 years without using drugs or alcohol for Grisel, a psychology professor at Bucknell University, where he studies how brain-addictive drugs work. His new book is Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.
On how the abuse of drugs and alcohol affects the brains of young people
Changes in behavior that occur during adolescence are so important and lasting, because the brain is forming permanent structures. So whatever you try as a teenager will have a much more impactful influence on the rest of your life trajectory than it would be, say, if you did it at another time in development, when your brain was not so prone to change .
When the circuits are settled, if they are placed under the influence of a drug, they will be arranged differently than if not under the influence of a drug. If you start using at 28, when the circuits are already more or less set, you will not have such a lasting impact. …
Probably [the brain is] is not mature until about 25, and this is a really critical moment. We certainly see lasting changes on the brain and behavior. So binge drinking certainly predisposes to alcoholism. It also alters the circuits, the connections, between the nerve cells and the pathways, including the dopamine pathway. It's not just drinking early or drinking, but the drinking pattern – and binge drinking is probably the worst scheme if you want to prepare for problematic use.
On How Alcohol Is Like a Drug Bat
Alcohol is such a disaster. It is a tiny, minuscule molecule that acts on the whole brain in so many different paths. It affects endorphins, as I said, and dopamine. It affects glutamate and GABA, the two primary excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. It affects all types of ion channels. It is so small that it can act everywhere. And so it was really difficult to study. In fact, we are still beginning to understand how you feel drunk – what are the mechanisms (19659019) to feel drunk – because it acts in a similar way to a hammer or only in a widespread way to stop any kind of cellular functioning.
About how cocaine is like a laser
Cocaine is the exact opposite of alcohol in this way. Do one thing. It really does it effectively. It blocks the recycling of dopamine and other neurotransmitters like … norepinephrine, and increases pleasure and improves excitement and improves movement. So it's very specific. It's easy to study, relatively, I should say, and much easier to understand how it works.
On how marijuana is like a bucket of red paint
Marijuana is both like cocaine and alcohol. So it's like cocaine because its actions are very specific, and it's like alcohol because such actions are all over the brain. … He does one thing, but he does it everywhere. So for cocaine, it does one thing but it does so in a few routes. Alcohol does many things everywhere. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, does something more or less, but everywhere, and that thing is to improve communication between cells, to improve the message. So, by kind of raising the gain or volume on a particular message that the neurons are communicating. …
When we smoke marijuana, the whole brain is inundated with THC and this causes the cell-cell communication in the cells of the brain to be improved or exaggerated. And this is really fun, because it seems, "Wow, everything is so interesting! Everything is beautiful! The music is so rich! The colors are so wonderful! The food is delicious!" All at once is on. This is not how the natural system would work discreetly. …
What is unfortunate is that the brain adapts to this, and adapts by decreasing the number of sites that THC can have an effect [on]. So those sites are not regulated, in the sense that they go away over time, and it does not take much time, but … the more you use and use, the less those receptors will be. … When you take drugs, things seem a little lifeless, gray and perhaps less interesting.
On opiate addiction
Opioids make the user feel like they are not suffering, they are completely happy, completely at ease, completely well, that everything goes good as it is. And I think that's why they're so attractive, because we often do not experience things as good as they are. So I'm a perfect antidote to suffering of any kind.
The problem is that if we reduce suffering and produce euphoria using opiates, the brain adapts. And so now we do not feel high and completely satisfied with them, we are simply not sick and unhappy. And when we take them away, we feel full of suffering – much more suffering than we had started to begin with. So the brain produces its own kind of suffering.
On why he does not believe methadone is a good solution for opiate addiction
Methadone is a pure substitute dependence, so it takes the place of other opiates. It is easier for society because it is very durable, so people are not going through this really intense retreat period. … It is economical and lasts a long time and does not allow the user to withdraw.
So for the rest of us it's a nice thing, because these people who depend on opioids are a little bit outside but no ; they are not so difficult to manage. But for those users – especially if they're young – it's even harder to get off the methadone than get off the heroin, because it lasts so long.
On how the drug and the use of alcohol are so rooted in society
And it's just something to notice how much of the company is focused … on one species of buffering or escape or mitigation of reality in some way. And for people who manage to get away without self-destruction, I think it's still something to be noticed. But for the rest of us [who struggle with addiction] – and we're not so rare – it's a fairly common disorder. …
I think that in reality, as a society, we never have enough. It's everywhere. I also think, however, that it is important to ask, individually, I imagine: "Is this drug use improving my life or is it decreasing?" So for coffee I can say that, happily, my life is improving and the costs of a little tolerance and dependence are not so bad, because I can only drink three cups. But I think it's something we have to go into our hearts to know the answer.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley have adapted it for the Web.