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In her teens, neuroscientist Judith Grisel took small sips of alcohol at family events, but it was not until she was 13 that she first experienced that she was drunk. Everything has changed.
"It was so complete and so profound," she says. "I suddenly felt less anxious, less insecure, less able to cope with the world, suddenly I was full and okay in a way I've never been."
Grisel began to pursue this feeling. Over the years she has been struggling with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. At the same time, she was interested in the neurosciences of addiction.
" I'm always interested in the mechanisms of things," she says. "And when I heard that I had a disease, I somehow felt that this would have a biological basis, and I thought I could study that biological basis and understand it and maybe fix it."
Now, for thirty years without drugs or alcohol, Grisel, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University, has studied how addictive drugs act on the brain. Her new book is Never Enough: The Neurosciences and the Experience of Addiction.
Highlights of the interview
About the effects of drug and alcohol abuse on the brain of young people
The behavioral changes that occur during puberty are so important and permanent because of themselves the brain forms permanent structures. Whatever you experience as a teenager will affect the rest of your life much more than if you did it at a different stage of development, when your brain is not prone to change.
When the circuits are determined to be under the influence of a drug, they are stored differently than when they are not under the influence of a drug. If you start with 28, if the circuits are already more or less adjusted, you will not have such lasting effects. …
Probably [the brain is] only about 25 years old, and this is a really critical time. We definitely see permanent changes in the brain and behavior. Alcohol drinking thus predestined for alcoholism. It also alters the circuitry, the connections between the nerve cells and the pathways, including the dopamine pathway. It's not just early drinking or how much you drink, but the pattern you drink – and binge drinking is probably the worst thing if you're interested in problematic consumption.
How alcohol is like a pharmacological sledgehammer
Alcohol is such a mess. It's a tiny, tiny molecule that works in so many different ways throughout the brain. It concerns 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 was really hard to learn. In fact, we first begin to understand how you feel drunk – what the mechanisms are to feel drunk – because it somehow acts like a sledgehammer or in a widespread way to disrupt all cellular functions.
How Cocaine Is Like a Laser
Cocaine is the perfect opposite of alcohol in this way. It does one thing. That makes it really effective. It blocks the recycling of dopamine and other neurotransmitters such as … norepinephrine, and this enhances enjoyment, arousal and movement. So it's very concrete. It's easy to learn, relatively, I should say, and it's a lot easier to understand how it works.
How marijuana is like a bucket of red paint
Marijuana is cocaine and alcohol alike. So it's like cocaine that its actions are very specific, and it's like alcohol when these actions take place throughout the brain. … It does one thing, but it does it everywhere. Cocaine is one thing, but it does it in a few ways. Alcohol does many things everywhere. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, does more or less one thing, but everywhere, and this is to improve the communication between cells to improve the message. So to increase the gain or volume of a particular message, the neurons communicate. …
When we smoke marijuana, the entire brain is flooded with THC, and this causes cell-to-cell communication in cells throughout the brain to be exacerbated or exaggerated. And that's really fun, because it seems like: "Wow, everything is so interesting! Everything is beautiful! The music is so rich! The colors are so wonderful! The food is delicious!" Everything is switched on at once. So the natural system does not work with discretion. …
What's unfortunate is that the brain adapts to it and adjusts itself by reducing the number of sites where THC can have an effect [on]. These digits therefore settle down, which means that they disappear over time, and it does not take long, but the more you use and the more often you use them, the fewer of these receptors will be. … If you take the drug away, things look lifeless and gray and maybe less interesting.
About Opiate Dependence
Opiates give the user the feeling of not having to suffer, that he is completely satisfied, completely comfortable, just fine, that everything is fine. And I think that's why they're so attractive because we often do not experience that things are the way they are. They are thus a perfect antidote to all kinds of ailments.
The problem is, when we reduce the suffering and produce euphoria with the help of opiates, the brain adapts , And so we do not feel high and completely satisfied with them now, we just do not feel sick and miserable. And when we take them away, we feel full of suffering – much more suffering than we had begun from the beginning. So the brain produces its own kind of suffering.
Why she does not believe Methadone is a good solution for opiate dependence
Methadone is a pure substitution addiction, so it replaces other opiates. It is easier for society because it is very long-lasting and people do not go through this really intense withdrawal phase. It's cheap and it lasts a long time and the user does not retire.
For the rest of us, it's a nice thing because those people who are opioid-dependent are somehow out of the way; it's not that hard to handle. But for these users – especially those who are young – it is even harder to leave methadone than heroin because it takes so long.
How Drug and Alcohol Consumption Is So Deeply Rooted in Society
It's just something to note how much society focuses on something, or some kind of buffering somehow escape or mitigate reality. And for people who can handle it without destroying themselves, I think this is still noticeable. But for the rest of us [who struggle with addiction] – and we're not really that rare – it's a fairly common disruption. …
I think we really can not get enough as a society. It is everywhere. But I also think it's important to ask individually, I think, "Does this drug use improve or diminish my life?" For coffee, I can happily say that it improves my life, and the cost of a little tolerance and dependence is not so bad because I can only drink three cups. But I think that's something we have to go into our own hearts to know the answer.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the tone of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley have adapted it for the web.