William Burroughs, perhaps the world’s most famous drug addict, once confided to Whitley Strieber that an addict is always chasing the thrill he got from his first hit. The more they take a drug, the less pleasure they get, which is what makes them so frantic to get more. This is because cocaine actually damages the brain cells that cause pleasure.

Dr. Karley Little studied postmortem brain samples of 35 people who “had cocaine in their system when they died,” although it was not the direct cause of death. What the brain samples showed is that those who took cocaine had problems with the amount of dopamine their brains produced and how it was released by the brain.

Dopamine is the chemical that’s released so we can feel pleasure. Cocaine initially blocks transporters that bring dopamine back into cells, causing it to build up and bring on the drug “high.” But continuous use leads to lower dopamine levels and a reduced ability to regain those feelings. The cells involved in the production of dopamine either fall asleep or die in those who regularly use the drug.

Little doesn’t think the neurons actually die off. “It’s more likely they’re turned way down. We’re not sure if they go back to normal once a person stops taking cocaine,” he says. If they don’t return to normal, then ex-addicts face a future devoid of the normal degree of pleasure?whether or not they return to drugs.

Females are more easily addicted to drugs and alcohol than males and may need single-sex treatment programs to overcome their addictions. “They get hooked faster, they get hooked using lesser amounts of alcohol and drugs and cocaine, and they suffer the consequences faster and more severely,” says Joseph A. Califano Jr. of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

A recent 3 year study, based on a nationwide survey of females age 8 to 22 shows that girls are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol if they reach puberty early, have eating disorders or were ever sexually abused. They often start using cigarettes, alcohol or drugs when they move to a new community or school.

Califano says treatment centers need to give female addicts “a chance to be with just women.” He says, “We have not put together prevention programs that go to the things that influence girls and influence young women. Women have paid a fearful price for this failure.”

It’s been shown that an abnormal amount of early sexual stimulation, such as in childhood sexual abuse, can cause the same type of dopamine damage, preventing the victim from ever experiencing normal sexual pleasure as an adult. Eating too many sweets can produce the same effect. Psychologist John Hoebel says, “Highly palatable foods and highly potent sexual stimuli are the only stimuli capable of activating the dopamine system with anywhere near the potency of addictive drugs.”

Moderation is the key. Steven Halpern’s music can bring you the kind of joy that’s safe to experience.

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