Definition of Neurotransmitters
Before we get into the science of what’s happening in your brain when it’s on weed, let’s take a moment to consider our brain. It’s the command center of our body, the seat of our consciousness, the entity through which we process and interpret the entire world, the creator of our personality, what makes us who we are, and the most irreplaceable part of our body. Our brain is made up of special cells called neurons, and one hundred billion neurons are present in a healthy human adult brain. They kind of look like this:
See where they sort of connect? At those glowing red lights? Those are the places that one neuron passes along its message to the next neuron, and so on and so forth until the message gets to its final destination. These messages are at the root of what allows you to do such things as breathe, play video games, and figure out your monthly budget.
You may have noticed that the neurons aren’t actually touching. How then, you may wonder, are the messages passed along? Take a look-see at the glowing red lights in the photo above. Those red lights are meant to represent the release and reception of a special chemical from one neuron to the next. Chemicals deliver (or transmit) the message. The chemical released from a neuron is called a neurotransmitter. The neuron on the receiving end has different receptors for different kinds of neurotransmitters. It is like a key and a lock: receptors are designed to receive a certain kind of neurotransmitter.
The balance of chemicals in our brain is crucial. It’s also extremely complex and delicate. As David Sheff points out, our neurological system not only has to perform the function of “carrying information and instructions,” but at the same time it also works “triggering and monitoring responses, and moderating one another.” This particular task of the neurological system plays a huge role in drug addiction. We will explain this more a bit later. For now, look at this picture:
Function of Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters each have several functions, but each specializes in something. Some of these specialties include the fight-or-flight response, impulse regulation, memory assistance, moods and emotion regulation, sleep pattern creation, and pleasure. And here’s where we get down to business: the neurotransmitter responsible for providing pleasure, also known as dopamine, is really what’s at the bottom of all use, abuse, and addiction to drugs.
Dopamine is a gift from our brain. It is bestowed upon us as a reward. By rewarding us, our brains reinforce the behaviors that it wants repeated. Because we’re all about repeating behaviors when they bring about feelings of pleasure. Here’s something else: dopamine is released even when we are not performing the behavior itself but are only reminded somehow of the behavior. So tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, and smelling can all cause our dopamine to flow, so can even thinking about a dopamine-rewarded behavior. Dopamine is powerful stuff.
In fact, it is precisely our brain’s reward system that’s responsible for our survival. It has always been and will always be this way. We are rewarded with dopamine by our brain for things like eating and having sex, necessary activities for our survival. How unromantic. The sole purpose of pleasure is as a survival mechanism.
The brain’s go system
That’s all well and good so far, but the thing about pleasure is that we always want more, more, and more of it. When the dopamine is flowing, what some scientists call our go system activates. Go in this case means go get more of whatever’s making you feel so darned good. On the other hand, an out-of-control go system doesn’t do much at all for the species survival. Think here of unchecked hedonism. Where does it lead? Mayhem and then death, usually. Because hedonism doesn’t bode well for our survival, our brain also has a stop system.
The brain’s stop system
Remember earlier when I said that we would talk later about how our neurological system acts as a moderator? Well, I was referring to the stop system. This system’s job is to moderate the go system. These systems can be thought of as the drummer and bassist of a band. They are dependent on each other. When they are in synch, it makes beautiful music, but if one of those guys loses it, everything can get jacked up right quick. So, if you had to hazard a guess, which system do you think goes off the chain when in the throes of addiction? Keep reading to find out if you’re correct.