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Growing up, neuroscientific Judith Grisel would take some alcohol content during family events, but it wasn't until she was 13 that she felt full for the first time. Everything changed.
"It was so complete and so deep," she says. "I suddenly felt less anxious, less uncertain, less unpleasant to cope with the world. Suddenly I was full and okay in a way I had never been."
Grisel started chasing that feeling. Through the years she fought with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. But, along the way, she also became interested in the addiction neuroscience.
" I am always interested in the mechanisms of things," she says. "And when I heard that I had a disease, I naturally felt that it would have a biological foundation and I thought I could study the biological foundation and understand it and then fix it."
Now it has been 30 years without using drugs or alcohol for Grisel, professor of psychology at Bucknell University where she is studying how addictive drugs work on the brain. Her new book is Never enough: Neuroscience and Abuse Experience.
On how abuse of drugs and alcohol affect young brains
The changes in behavior that occur during adolescence are so important and lasting, as the brain forms permanent structures. So whatever you experience as a youth will have a much more influential influence on the rest of your life paths than you would say, if you did it at another time in development when your brain was not so inclined to change.
When the circuits are closed, if they are put down under the influence of a drug, they will be laid in different ways than if it is not affected by a drug. If you start using at 28, when the circuits are already more or less set, you will not have such a long-lasting impact. …
Probably [the brain is] not ripe for about 25, and this is a really critical time. We definitely see lasting changes in the brain and behavior. So bad drinking safely predisposes to alcoholism. It also changes the circuits, connections, between nerve cells and the pathways, including the dopamine pathway. It not only drinks early or how much you drink, but the pattern you drink – and drinking drinks is probably the worst pattern if you want to predispose to problem use.
How alcohol is like a pharmacological sledge hammer
Alcohol is such a mess. It is a small, small molecule, and it operates across the brain on so many different pathways. 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 work everywhere. And so it has been difficult to study. In fact, we are still beginning to understand how you feel full – what mechinisms are to feel full of – because it works like a plain or just a widespread way to interfere with all types of cell function.
How cocaine is like a laser
Cocaine is the perfect opposite to alcohol in this way. It does one thing. It makes it really effective. It blocks the recovery of dopamine and other neurotransmitters such as … norepinephrine, and it increases joy and increases excitement and increases movement. So it is very specific. It is easy to study, relatively, I should say, and much easier to understand how it works.
How marijuana is like a bucket of red color
Marijuana is both as cocaine and as alcohol. So it's like cocaine in that its actions are very specific, and it's like alcohol because these actions are all over the brain. … It does one thing, but it does it everywhere. So for cocaine it does one thing but it does it in just a few ways. Alcohol does many things everywhere. THC, the active ingredient of marijuana, makes one thing more or less, but everywhere, and that is to improve communication between cells, to improve the message. So, please increase the profit or volume of a certain message that neurons communicate. …
Whenever we smoke marijuana, the whole brain is flooded with THC, and it improves or exacerbates cell-to-cell communication in cells throughout the brain. And it's great fun, because it seems that "Wow, everything is so interesting! Everything is beautiful! The music is so rich! The colors are so wonderful! The food is delicious!" Everything at once is turned on. It is not how the natural system would work with discretion. …
What is unfortunate is that the brain adapts to it, and it adapts by decreasing the number of sites that THC can have effect [on]. So these places down regulate, which means that they go away with time, and it doesn't take long, but … the more you use and the more often you use, the less of these receptors it will be. … When you remove the drug, things seem to be lifeless and gray and perhaps less interesting.
Op opiate misuse
Opiates make a user feel that they are not suffering, that they are completely content, quite comfortable, quite good, that everything is okay as it is. And I think they are so attractive because we often do not feel that things are okay as they are. So, they are kind of a perfect antidote to any kind of suffering.
The problem is that if we reduce suffering and we produce euphoria with the help of opiates, the brain adjusts. And so now we do not feel high and completely satisfied with them, we just do not feel sick and unhappy. And when we take them away we feel full of suffering – much more suffering than we had started with to begin with. Then the brain produces its own kind of suffering.
If she does not believe methadone is a good solution for opiate addiction
Methadone is a pure substitution abuse, so it takes place for other opiates. It is easier for society, as it is very long-lasting, so people do not go through this very intensive recall time. … It is cheap and it takes a long time, and it does not allow the user to withdraw.
So for the rest of us it is nice, because these people who are opiate dependent are typical of the way; They are not so difficult to handle. But for those users – especially if they are young – it is even more difficult to get rid of methadone than it is to get rid of, heroin, because it lasts so long.
How the use of drugs and alcohol is such a breakthrough in society
It is just something that notices how much society is focused … on some kind of buffering or refugee or deterrent reality in some way. And for people who can get away with it without self-destructive, I think it is still something to notice. But for the rest of us [who struggle with addiction] – and we're not really so rare – it's a pretty common disease. …
I think we really can't, as a society, get enough. It's everywhere. However, I think it is important to ask, individually, do I suppose, "Is this drug use improving my life, or does it reduce it?" So for coffee I can say, fortunately, it improves my life and the cost of some tolerance and addiction is not that bad, because I can only drink three cups. But I think it is something that we must go into our own hearts to know the answer to.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the sound of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley adapted it to the web.