Many drug users consider themselves “recreational users.” Maybe their drug use hasn’t gotten to the point where it has taken over their life. The path to addiction looks different for everyone, and some people are able to “hold their head above water” for longer than others. Maybe only using drugs occasionally or at parties. But as the current state of affairs in our country has taught us, the danger of addiction is very real, and no one is immune. A new study shows that some “recreational” drug users may not be as safe as they think.

Recent data published out of McGill University in Montreal shows some interesting (and concerning) brain research that shows that nondependent cocaine users may be closer to full blown addiction than they might seem. To understand the results they published, it is first necessary to understand a bit about the science behind cocaine addiction. When you use cocaine, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine. This neurotransmitter is heavily involved in the reward system of the brain and body. For example, eating chocolate or being in the presence of someone you love can also cause the release of dopamine. However, in addicted individuals, not only can their drug of choice itself release dopamine, but so can “cues” associated with the drug. For example, places, situations, or even just paraphernalia can become cues that will trigger the brain to start releasing dopamine even before the drug is taken. This is similar to the “Pavlov’s dog,” situation, where a ringing bell is paired with food. Eventually, the ringing bell itself can start to elicit salivation. But in the case of drug use, these cues can also trigger cravings. As an addict progresses, their brain switches over from more of a reward response, to more of a habitual and unconscious demand for the drug.
Researchers at McGill used brain scans to study so-called “recreational” cocaine users. The participants were filmed while using cocaine with a friend in a laboratory setting. Later, when the participants were shown the footage of their friend using cocaine, their brain began releasing dopamine and triggering craving, even without being in the direct presence of the drug. This suggests that these users may not have as much control over their drug-taking behavior as they think. One or more cues may induce brain activity that causes the user to want to use the drug. These results also highlight the sinister and sneaky nature of addiction. Most people think that getting help is for people who are “worse off” than they are, or who are at rock bottom. But even casual drug use can rapidly, and without warning, progress into something far more dangerous and hard to break. Getting help early on is the best approach, and could save you from losing everything you hold dear.

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