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  • Robert Farago

The Truth About Addiction?

Of mice and men


Once upon a time there was a cable TV show called The PTL Club. Founded by scandal-bound Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the Praise the Lord Club was a talk show with a difference...


The guests were sinners. Their stories were grist for the Bakkers’ mill. We’re talking poverty, abuse, rape, incest, prostitution, illness, injury, criminality, satanism and, of course, drug addiction. All PTL’s guests found salvation via their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


That’s the template for the addiction treatment industry: confess, surrender, testify, sin no more. Wash, rinse, repeat.


Alcoholics Anonymous directs its members to admit their drink-related catastrophes, identify a higher power, surrender to their higher power, declare their struggle and… drink no more.


Psychotherapy tends to leave out the spiritual element, but it’s the same deal: confront your past, deal with it, shed blame, use no more.


No Pain, No Gain?



All of these modalities operate under the assumption that the worse the fallout from addiction – “hitting rock bottom” – the more likely the addicts is to give it up.


Makes sense, right? The greater the pain from an action, the less likely we are to repeat it. And yet that calculation doesn’t hold true for hard-core addicts (despite the rehab industry’s claims).


Jacob (not his real name) offered a fascinating explanation, based on a recent study of mice and addiction.


Shocking Research Reveals Random Result



In 2018, Swiss neurologist Dr. Christian Luscher (above) and his team wired-up the brains of genetically engineered (i.e., identical) mice. The modified mice got a dopamine hit whenever they pressed a lever.


After two weeks, they introduced the mice to a “negative consequence”: a brief electric shock to their feet. The mice got zapped at random intervals, roughly a third of the time they pressed the lever.


The result (via genengnews.com):

While 40% of the animals quickly stopped activating the lever following the introduction of the electric shock punishment— these mice were termed renouncers—60% of the animals, the perseverers, continued to stimulate their reward system, even though they also had to endure the painful foot shocks.

Jacob reckons it’s the initial pleasure followed by the randomness of the shocks that made the addiction so powerful.


If the mice had been shocked at predictable intervals, they wouldn’t have experienced the irrepressible need to return to the bar (so to speak).


Knowing When to Fold ‘Em – Doesn’t Help



Jacob pointed out the similarity between randomly shocked rodents and gambling addicts.


Gambling addicts believe they’re never more than one bet away from that sweet, sweet dopamine hit, no matter how mentally, physically, emotionally or financially horrible their current situation or previous experience.


Drug addicts keep “chasing the dragon” – looking for that first/best dopamine hit or intoxication pleasure – long after the dragon is gone.


Even when they know their behavior is “shockingly” painful for themselves and everyone around them. Even when they rationally accept the certainty that their drug of choice (DOC) won’t git ‘er done.


Truth or Consequences



Under this analysis, confronting addicts with the consequences of their addiction is a losing strategy.


A part of their brain “believes” that the next time they use could be like the first/best time they used, despite any and all evidence to contrary.


So how about convincing the addict they will never again receive any pleasure from their DOC? If a gambling addict knew he would never win, would he continue to gamble?


Yes! As long as the addict has the deeply embedded/hard wired memory of the pleasure associated with their DOC, that part of their mind will continue operating under the assumption that the high is out there, somewhere. Driving them to use.


The Path to Recovery?


The solution? Erase the pleasurable memory (a.k.a., the neural pathway) created by the high at the beginning of the addiction.


Assuming such a thing is possible, would that de-activate the drive? It worked for mice…

Continuing compulsive behavior could be curbed in perseverers. Optogenetic inhibition of the identified neural pathway was enough to turn perseverers back into renouncing mice, although the effects were only temporary. When optogenetic inhibition was switched off the compulsive behavior returned.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel: hope for curing addiction. But it doesn’t lie in the conscious act of confession and resolution.


It lies in changing the part of the addict’s mind that’s impervious to rational thought or negative experiences. How you do that is the question.


Hypnosis? Remove the memory of the initial high? Worth a shot I reckon.

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