The neurology of addiction – never enough and no easy pathway of quick fixes


I wanted to post this February 2019 NPR interview with Neuroscientist Dr Judith Grisel.

She is a scientist studying addiction and also a person in long term recovery. She confesses that after she got into recovery that she pursued studying the neuroscience of addiction in the hopes she could figure it all out and use without being addicted. It is not what she ended up learning and she is till in recovery several decades later. Now she is working to get people to understand addiction more fully. I find her descriptions of tolerance really on point and easy to understand.

My take away from listening to her podcast:

  1. There is a common substrate for all addiction – It becomes an important consideration to understanding that we cannot focus on a single substance and expect to make much progress with healing addicted persons.
  2. Young people are particularly at risk for addiction – early life use of drugs increase the chances of becoming addicted. We should be thinking about this as our young people are exposed to vaping and marijuana which is way more potent than what prior generations experimented with.
  3. There are genetic risks for addiction – with the example of alcohol. Children of alcoholics have been found to have lower rates of endorphins production. Consider how we could benefit from early identification of people at greater risks for becoming addicted.
  4. The brain is incredibly adaptable – over time tolerance to drug use develops, resulting in a normal state being experienced with use and not using drugs being experienced as a deficit. This has implications for how we treat addiction. In essence, there is no easy way out of addiction and we need to focus resources on helping people heal. This takes time and we simply are not going to find a quick fix to healing. It is a disorder with no panacea.
  5. About half the risk for addiction is genetic, about half environmental. We are a long way from fully understanding how genetic, environmental and even how personality influences the risk factors of addiction.

Her dialogue on marijuana was particularly enlightening. To paraphrase Dr. Grisel. Alcohol acts like a sledgehammer in the brain, Cocaine is like a laser and Marijuana is like a bucket of red paint. She describes Marijuana as being similar to both alcohol and cocaine in its actions. In essence, it does one thing and it does it everywhere. It enhances communication between cells, essentially turning up the volume of communication. This initially feels good. Music sounds better, food tastes better and everything is more interesting and fun. Unfortunately, the brain adapts, which for long term, heavy users of marijuana is experienced as everything being boring or “turned down” without marijuana. She also notes it takes months to years for heavy users to have their brains heal and be able to be able to function without missing it.

Wondering what readers may think of this NPR interview. It is interesting and refreshing to hear a neuroscientist in open recovery talk about addition and be able to relate the science of addiction to her own life experience. How she describes early life use and initial addiction seems very consistent with what many of us experience.

Video link to NPR interview with Dr Judy Grisel – February 12, 2019 is here: