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How the Anticipation Molecule Drives Addiction

by HealthCare Resource Centers Clinical Team

How the Anticipation Molecule Drives Addiction

The human brain contains something called dopamine, commonly described as the pleasure molecule. Each time a person engages in something that satisfies a need or makes them feel good, like eating food, having sex, and using mind-altering substances, dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens. The release of dopamine can feel intense, especially when using potent drugs such as opioids, causing people to experience dopamine levels that don’t occur naturally. This “high” feeling makes addiction particularly difficult to treat because the brain begins to seek out more and more dopamine release, quickly increasing the risk of chronic substance misuse.

What is the Anticipation Molecule?

Research has uncovered that the dopamine neurotransmitter is more powerful than previously understood. It’s not just pushing the drive of pleasure-seeking emotions and sensations; it also dictates the reward system in the brain. However, dopamine isn’t only produced once the person achieves their reward; it also kicks in during the anticipation of the end goal.

An easy way to understand how dopamine is released is to consider an example involving something more simplistic like tempting dessert. Bob arrived at the office on Monday morning having skipped breakfast and feeling quite hungry. It just so happened to be Joan’s birthday, and she brought in a birthday cake to share with her work colleagues.

Bob begins to contemplate having a slice, despite recently starting a new weight loss regimen. Upon realizing the cake is chocolate with vanilla icing, Bob’s curiosity quickly turns to desire for the cake, pushing him to have intense cravings. He tells himself having a small piece of cake wouldn’t be so bad, and he would make up for it later at the gym. These thoughts all began the release of dopamine in Bob’s brain as he began to imagine how the cake would taste and fond memories of the last time he had some.

After some back and forth with himself, Bob decides to cave and grab a piece of cake and eat it. As it turns out, Joan bought cheap grocery store sheet cake that didn’t even taste that good! Despite eating the whole slice, he’s disappointed and how he’s full of regret. Despite the letdown of a mediocre birthday cake, Bob still encountered a dopamine release caused by the temptation of his favorite dessert, spurring anticipation, and will likely face a similar situation in the future. How Bob deals with the allure of sweets moving forward depends on many factors, but overcoming the anticipation will always lead to battling a dopamine response.

How does Dopamine affect Substance Use Disorder?

The anticipation theory shows that drug users, for example, already begin to stimulate their dopamine levels during the process of acquiring and preparing to use substances, not just when they’ve reached their desired high. This can be observed by the many ritualistic behaviors exhibited by people who habitually misuse drugs, including a specific time, location, or routine they practice. Like Bob, drug users and people who struggle with addiction also deal with anticipation and regret once they’ve experienced dopamine release, whether it was merely the anticipation or both the anticipation and achieved pleasure they’ve sought out. These factors make the illness of addiction more complex than many people realize and prove that the reward pathway in the brain can manipulate emotions beyond simple pleasure-seeking.

Comprehensive recovery programs for substance use disorder like the ones offered at HCRC take the powerful impact of the brain into consideration when applying treatment methods to patients. Understanding the role of dopamine during the phases of anticipating the consumption of substances can help researchers provide better relapse prevention guidance for those in recovery. With the use of FDA-approved medications and impactful substance use counseling, all enrolled patients are given the tools to reach long-lasting recovery. Message or call a local clinic today to learn more about HCRC treatment options.

Medically Reviewed By:

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

The Clinical Team at Health Care Resource Centers is our team of physicians and medical directors within the organization. HCRC is a CARF accredited organization and has been providing addiction treatment services for over 32 years in the New England area.

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