Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nicotine Addiction Explained

"Moreover, nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive
drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms."  
July 17, 1963 report by then Brown & Williamson general counsel/vice president Addison Yeama

Nicotine from smoking influences our brain in such a way that nicotine addiction is harder to beat than most people realize. Nicotine is so powerful that it changes the structure and function of brain. Nicotine addiction facts tell us that nicotine is responsible for physical and mood-altering effects in our brain that are temporarily pleasing which in turn reinforce our continued use of tobacco.

Researchers have known for decades that chronic exposure to nicotine increases the number of nicotine receptors--molecules that are activated by binding to the drug--on nerve cells. The binding of nicotine to these receptors, and in particular to one specific subunit known as alpha4, enhances the release of a pleasure-causing neurotransmitter called dopamine.

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What Are Dopamine Pathways?

The brain's dopamine pathways serve as a built-in teacher. It uses a desire, yearning or wanting sensation to get our attention when it wants to pound home a survival lesson necessary to keep us humans alive and thriving.

Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to go without eating, to actually starve yourself to death, or for that matter, to die of thirst? Why do we seek acceptance by our peers, want companionship, and desire a mate or sexual relations? Why do we feel anxiety when bored and an "aaah" sense of relief when we complete a task?

Remember the very first time your parents praised you for keeping your coloring between the lines? Remember the "aaah" sensation? That was dopamine, the satisfaction of your wanting to succeed. The deep inner primitive brain (the limbic mind) is hard-wired, via dopamine pathways, to keep us drinking liquids, fed, together (there's "safety in numbers"), while achieving and reproducing.

When we feel hunger our dopamine pathways are being stimulated, teasing us with anticipation "wanting" for food. If kept waiting, the anticipation may build into urges or even full-blown craves. Each bite we eat further stimulates dopamine flow until stomach peptides at last tell the brain we're full and wanting becomes satisfied.

But our brain doesn't stop with simply creating and satisfying wanting associated with species survival events such as eating, drinking liquids, bonding, nurturing, accomplishment and sex. It makes sure that we don't forget them, that in the future we pay close attention to these activities.

The brain associates and records how each particular wanting was satisfied in the most durable, high-definition memory the mind may be capable of generating. It does so by hard-wiring dopamine pathway neurotransmissions into our conscious memory banks (the prefrontal cortex), where each is linked to the event that satisfied dopamine pathway wanting, hunger and yearning.

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Nicotine Addiction Threat

What would happen if, by chance, an external chemical existed that once introduced into the bloodstream was small enough to pass and cross through the blood/brain barrier (a protective filter), and once inside the brain were somehow able to activate and turn on our mind's dopamine pathway circuitry? Could that chemical hijack the mind's priorities teacher? If so, how long would it take before continuing chemical use resulted in the person becoming totally yet falsely convinced that using more of the chemical was as important as eating food?

Hunger for food, hunger for nicotine. Food craves, nicotine craves. "Aaah" wanting satisfaction while taking bites, "aaah" wanting satisfaction while replenishing nicotine reserves. Welcome to the addict's world of nicotine normal, a world built on lies. For if we don't eat food we die, while if we stop using nicotine we thrive.

While dopamine pathway stimulation is the common thread between chemical addictions (including cocaine, heroin, meth, nicotine and alcoholism), this simplified explanation does not explain why users initially continue using the drug prior to a growing pile of dopamine pathway high-definition use memories begging them to use more. Nor does it explain why most regular nicotine users get hooked but not all, or why quitting is often accompanied by withdrawal symptoms.

Although enhanced dopamine flow is associated with all chemical addictions, each chemical differs in how it triggers or enhances stimulation, how long stimulation lasts, and each chemical's ability to produce a different "high" sensation by interacting with other neurochemicals and pathways.

Aside from enhancing dopamine flow, nicotine is a legal central nervous system stimulant that activates the body's fight or flight response. This results in an alert stimulated high, which allows us nicotine addicts to feel different or even superior to illegal drug addicts who fill the world's prisons. This despite the fact that this year addiction to smoking nicotine is expected to kill 17 times as many Americans as all illegal drugs combined.

While nicotine stimulates the nervous system, alcohol has the opposite effect in actually depressing it and slowing normal brain function. Heroin's dopamine stimulation is accompanied by an endorphine high, resulting in a short yet intense numbing or analgesic effect. Cocaine's high is a sense of stimulated euphoria associated with delaying normal clean-up (re-uptake) of multiple neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin and nor-adrenaline), while methamphetamine is the maximum speed stimulant.

Again, the common thread between each of these addictions is that the brain's dopamine pathways were taken hostage and left the drug addict totally yet falsely convinced that continuing drug use was important to their survival, that their drug gave them their edge, helped them cope and that life without it would be horrible.

What we nicotine addicts could not see was that our beliefs and thinking about that next fix were unworthy of belief. Once hooked it was too late. Dopamine pathway generated pay-attention memories were so vivid and durable that they quickly buried all remaining memory of life without nicotine.

Signs of Nicotine Addiction

The strength of nicotine addiction is more pronounced in some people than in others. Whereas one person will be able to give up fairly easily from one day to the next, others could not dream of doing that. It is not entirely clear why that is the case, but it seems that some human bodies metabolize nicotine more quickly than others. These will be the individuals that find it most difficult to quit. Perversely though, those who find quitting relatively easy, often have a lesser commitment to staying off nicotine than their more strongly addicted fellow ex-smokers.

Another factor that is significant in how strongly addicted a person is, is the length of time that they have been a smoker for. While younger people, who may only have smoked for a few years have a better chance of giving up, often middle-aged and older people who may have smoked for most of their lives will find giving up extremely hard. Because they are closer to suffering the inevitable health consequences, this older group may find a stronger motivation to quit than their younger counterparts in whose minds those consequences seem a life-time away.

Following are the common signs of nicotine addiction:
  • The person is unable to stop smoking.
  • The person keeps on smoking despite health complications.
  • The person stops participating in social or recreational activities that don't allow him/her to smoke.
  • If he/she tries to stop smoking, he experiences strong nicotine withdrawal symptoms which include craving for tobacco, anxiety, diarrhea, irritability, restlessness, headache, drowsiness, stomach problems, constipation, difficulty in concentrating, etc.

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Nicotine Among Other Drugs

Dr. Jack E. Henningfield of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Dr. Neal L. Benowitz of the University of California at San Francisco ranked six substances based on five problem areas.

  • Withdrawal (W): Presence and severity of characteristic withdrawal symptoms.
  • Reinforcement (R): A measure of the substance's ability, in human and animal tests, to get users to take it again and again, and in preference to other substances.
  • Tolerance (T): How much of the substance is needed to satisfy increasing cravings for it, and the level of stable need that is eventually reached.
  • Dependence (D): How difficult it is for the user to quit, the relapse rate, the percentage of people who eventually become dependent, the rating users give their own need for the substance and the degree to which the substance will be used in the face of evidence that it causes harm.
  • Intoxication (I): Though not usually counted as a measure of addiction in itself, the level of intoxication is associated with addiction and increases the personal and socIal damage a substance may do.
1 = Most serious
6 = Least serious


Nicotine - 3(W) - 4(R) - 2(T) - 1(D) - 5(I)
Heroin ---2(W) - 2(R) - 1(T) - 2(D) - 2(I)
Cocaine --4(W) - 1(R) - 4(T) - 3(D) - 3(I)
Alcohol --1(W) - 3(R) - 3(T) - 4(D) - 1(I)
Caffeine - 5(W) - 6(R) - 5(T) - 5(D) - 6(I)
Marijuana-6(W) - 5(R) - 6(T)- 6(D) - 4(I)


Nicotine - 3(W) - 4(R) - 4(T) - 1(D) - 6(I)
Heroin ---2(W) - 2(R) - 2(T) - 2(D) - 2(I)
Cocaine --3(W) - 1(R) - 1(T) - 3(D) - 3(I)
Alcohol --1(W) - 3(R) - 4(T) - 4(D) - 1(I)
Caffeine - 4(W) - 5(R) - 3(T) - 5(D) - 5(I)
Marijuana-5(W) - 6(R) - 5(T)- 6(D) - 4(I)

Sources and Additional Information:

1 comment:

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    Nicotine Addiction


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