The Hijacked Brain

On February 3, 1999, I was arrested in my home for possession of cocaine and crack cocaine. The local TV  news channels in Toledo, Ohio, had a field day covering my arrest and arraignment, and followed my story for six months. Many people found it appalling that a 747 pilot for a major international airline could be addicted to cocaine. In spite of the contempt that many in the press and general public had for me, no one found me more disgusting than I found myself.

After completing a 30-day treatment program in Southern California, I moved into a sober living home and continued my recovery in a rigid aftercare program. I was introduced to my company’s employee assistance program, and one by one I completed a series of closely monitored hurdles. Nine months after being arrested I strapped into a 747 and flew 400 people from San Francisco to Kona, Hawaii. Dr. Joseph Pursch was the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved psychiatrist who deemed me well enough to fly again. The FAA mandated that I be monitored for a minimum of five years. I had a laundry list of requirements that kept me in front of doctors, EAP reps, union reps and chief pilots every month. Being this closely monitored is one of the reasons that pilots have the highest recovery rate of any profession. Ninety-two percent of all pilots that are introduced to recovery make it back to the cockpit and the relapse rate for those individuals is in the single digits.

As my passion for recovery grew, I started facilitating groups and soon became a Certified Addiction Specialist and also Certified in EEG Neurotherapy. I slowly developed a knack for speaking, which is fueled more by passion than ability.

I now understand that addiction is a self-contracted neurological disease that truly hi-jacks the brain. We initially chose to try alcohol and drugs, but we didn’t choose the disease of addiction any more than someone chooses to be a diabetic.

Alcohol and drugs affect the brain in very powerful ways. The brain is an electrical- chemical organ that communicates within itself and the rest of the body. This communication in the brain takes place as one neuron (brain cell) connects through synoptic connections to another neuron. An electrical charge (caused by ions) running along the axiom (shaft) of the neuron causes the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals) into the synapse, a small space between the sender and the receptor of the neuron receiving the neurotransmitter. As the receiving neuron metabolizes this neurotransmitter molecule, the magic begins to happen.

Dopamine

There are many types of neurotransmitters, however the one most associated with addiction is dopamine. Dopamine is normally released (in regulated amounts) within the brain so that we feel pleasure. That’s the magic I was referring to — the pleasure as felt when eating a good meal, seeing a beautiful sunset or having sex. Addictive drugs increase the amount of dopamine released in the brain and some drugs release enormous amounts of dopamine that in turn creates intense pleasure. Crystal meth causes 13 times the amount of dopamine release as having sex. The drugs that release the highest amounts of dopamine in descending order are methamphetamine, cocaine, heroine, nicotine, alcohol and marijuana.

The duration and intensity of the dopamine pleasure surge is different for different drugs. Cocaine’s enormous pleasure surge lasts for 15 to 30 minutes, while the pleasure surge from marijuana, though not as intense, will last for many hours.

The bad news is, the dopamine receptors, in the neurons, can become overloaded and cannot metabolize all the dopamine the sender cells release. Dopamine molecules floating around in the synapse with nowhere to go is not a good thing. Overtime the dopamine levels in the brain cells are depleted. These take time to replenish, and during this time it is practically impossible to experience normal pleasure.

Dopamine can also be a hormone, the difference being that as a hormone it is released from the endocrine gland and a neurotransmitter is released from a nerve terminal as the result of an electrical signal. As a hormone dopamine affects cells away from the site of release and affects moods and even growth. As a neurotransmitter, dopamine goes from one neuron through the synapse into another neuron. A drug called L-dopa can increase dopamine levels in the brain and is used with Parkinson’s patients.

The dopamine transporter gene is associated with ADD and ADHD. Many people, as myself, have attention deficit problems. Drugs like cocaine helps focus thinking and behavior, obviously the effect does not last long.

Dopamine is a big player in the brain and throughout the body however, addictive drugs deregulates normal secretion and causes major psychological problems for the addict.

ADD or ADHD is also present with many people with low beta brain waves. These people are constantly trying to wake up there brain to feel present. Addictive drugs, especially stimulants have the desired affect that people with a “tired brain” (low beta waves) are looking for.

Stimulants “wake up” the brain of the person suffering from attention deficit thus the effects of stimulants are more profound for these people. This is why stimulant use statistics are higher for ADD and ADHD people than for the general population.

Accordingly, attention deficit people are also drawn to high-risk behaviors – they yearn to feel alive! Dopamine is also associated with adrenals rushes. Drug use is not the only addicted behavior for people wanting to wake up their brain; shopping, gambling, risky sex, seeking love and obsessive working out are a few other destructive behaviors.

Other Neurotransmitters and Hormones

Drugs cause the release of many different neurotransmitters such as serotonin (associated with mood swings) and GABA (associated with euphoria, impulsiveness). As with dopamine, norepinephrine has dual roles — one as a neurotransmitter and the other as a stress hormone. As a neurotransmitter, it increases heart rate triggering the release of glucose needed to activate the fight or flight response. Figure 1, illustrates what happens within the brain when a person drinks or uses.

Starting in the top left corner of Figure 1 – when we drink or use it has a profound electrical and chemical affect on our brain. Alcohol and drugs slow brain activity and disrupt normal brain regulations. The excessive volume of neurotransmitters released creates emotions and feelings that, when repeated become familiar. Familiarity and repetition, in this context, becomes addictive, which simply stated means “I can’t stop!” In spite of continuous negative consequences or even intellectual awareness “I am powerless” over my addiction. The lightening bolt graphic pointing toward the Electrical column, in the preceding illustration, deals with brain waves and activity levels. The brain usually is operating between .5 and 40 Hz (cycles per second). Our normal conscious state falls with the Beta ranges of 12 to 26 Hz. Other brains states are:

• Sleeping: Delta .5-4 Hz
• Meditative: Theta 4-8 Hz
• Calm: Alpha 8-12 Hz
• Landing a 747 on a short runway in the dark of night with high gusty winds and poor visibility will escalate the brains into: Gamma 26-40 Hz

In recovery we strive for the brain to be calm and alert simultaneously. This is not the natural state for alcoholics and addicts. EEG neurofeedback is a noninvasive, biofeedback technique that addresses the issues of irregular brain waves. Irregular brain waves are many times the result of brain trauma. This could be the result of a blow to the head, too many roller coaster rides or my favorite excuse, pulling 7 G’s flying a jet fighter. People with irregular brain waves will display character defects ranging from rage attacks to extreme benevolent behavior. There are many studies on the effects addictive drugs have on the brain’s electrical activity. Besides neurotransmitters, other brain chemical molecules are also associated with addiction, such as endogenous opioid polypeptides (endorphins), hormones and cannabinoids.

Figure 2 illustrates the neurological progression that takes place from the initial event of using through the entire addictive process. Of courses, what occurs in the brain is far more complex than illustrated here. The hijacking takes place as millions of neurons, with tens of thousands of synoptic-connections, fire simultaneously releasing high volumes of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Every hit, toke, line or drink re-fires the same chains of neurons. These chains are called neuropathways.

The saying around “brain people” is that when “neurons fire together they wire together.” In other words, repeated use creates permanent addiction pathways in the brain. 

Figure 2 illustrates the neural circuits in the brain that affects the addict’s decision- making abilities. The location of each of these areas in the brain came be found on the next graphic.

The Neural-circuits and drugs

The first area that drugs affect is the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). This is a small, primitive area located in the bottom of the mid brain (the reward center). When drugs hit the brain, the VTA is the first place that dopamine synthesizes and a signal is sent to the nucleus accumbens. This area of the brain makes food taste better, music sound better and most importantly sex and drugs feel better. The nucleus accumbens in turn releases dopamine, serotonin, GABA and endorphins. It then sends messages to the thalamus, which is the main relay connecting almost all the areas of the brain from the cerebrum to the spinal cord.

The thalamus relays signals to an area in the frontal lobe (blue area in Fig. 3) called the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain houses our higher-level thinking and is responsible for moderating social behaviors in humans. It does this by sending a signal to the mid brain to behave and act appropriately in dealing with primitive desires. This signal is sent via the fasciculas retroflexus to the mid brain, but guess what?

Alcohol and drugs destroy the fasciculas retroflexus thus causing the addict and the alcoholic to lose the ability to reason and to exhibit good moral behavior. The drug methamphetamine poses the greatest danger to these elongated tubular nerve fibers. While alcohol can take years to damage this area, crystal meth can practically destroy the fasciculas retroflexus in a single night of using. This brain damage is why a meth addict can shoot a clerk while robbing a convenience store and at the time feel no remorse.

The VTA also sends signals to the amygdala, which regulates hormonal secretion, and the hippocampus, which sends and retrieves messages to memory. Other parts of the brain like medulla oblongata, hypothalamus and the basal ganglia control heart rate, breathing, temperature, physical movement and balance, and are also affected negatively by the use of drugs.

Also, the frontal lobe releases another neurotransmitter known as glutamate, which triggers the pleasurable memories of getting high. Remembering past highs is known as euphoric recall. The mind also is capable of forgetting the negative consequences from previous use. As I tell my clients, “Your brain will lie to you. It will use every form of denial to convince you it is OK to use just one more time.”

Wow, a little knowledge of what happens in the brain with addiction can be both powerful and frightening. Now we are aware of why the ‘Just Say No!’ campaign in the 1980s was so ineffective.

Changing what is familiar…

We all know humans love the familiar — rather it be addiction, negative thoughts, daily routines or other habitual behaviors. We not only become addicted to the chemicals, we become obsessed with our thoughts and feelings. You don’t have to be an addict to experience obsession with negative thoughts. Ask an Al-anon member.

With addiction, we create many very strong neuropathways and they’re not going away. This is one of the reasons that ‘once an addict, always an addict.’ The solution is to create new neuropathways with totally new thoughts and behaviors. We do this by doing and thinking the unfamiliar until it becomes familiar. Reference the 60,000 on the bottom in blue on Figure 1. Sixty thousand is the approximate number of thoughts we have each day. As with addictive substances, every thought has an electrical and chemical action in the brain. Thoughts that become obsessive can also hijack the brains normal regulation. Thoughts and events that have emotional ties are more likely to make it into stored memory. Automatic negative
thoughts (ANTs) are the result of obsessive thinking. These thoughts become familiar and reinforce neuropathways in the same way the affects of alcohol and drugs do. This is why the family member who constantly thinks about the alcoholic or addict in their life also becomes sick.

The addict and the codependent must make drastic changes in their thinking for healing to take place. In order to change years of addictive behavior and obsessive thinking, a connection of a spiritual nature will ensure scientific results. That’s why ‘living in the present’ is omnipotent in recovery. In recovery, the fear that addicts and codependents experience will be redirected to living a life of love and service. We no longer can afford resentments and prejudices as we strive to develop an ‘attitude of gratitude.’ Although it doesn’t happen quickly, these things actually create healthy neurological changes in the brain. The practice of prayer, meditation, good nutrition, normal sleep patterns and exercise are very beneficial in reclaiming our brain. Doing these things, and other self-enhancing, unfamiliar activities rapidly create new neuropathways.

Recovering people are told to seek spiritual connections, to help others, even if it is not pleasurable. Most importantly self-assessing feelings, emotions and behaviors are instrumental in recovery. Instead of analyzing as to why we can’t do something, we are taught to simply take action. The dilemma remains that our new way of life demands practice and repetition, always remembering that we have a formidable enemy — our very own brain’s wiring for addiction.

The good news is that we have 100 billion neurons all with up to 100,000 possible synoptic connections. We have the potential to create almost unlimited new neuropathways. The more the new pathways are used, the stronger they become. The old neuropathways, although still there, are not as active and start to dissipate. This potential allows for remission from the terminal disease of addiction, and is why in recovery Dr. Pursch would tell me, “Larry, in recovery, you can become weller than well.” I thought at the time he was kidding me, now I know that he was right. I am living a life today that I could have never imagined. I have a sense of purpose and strong personal relationships with loved ones and friends in the fellowship. I remember well the agony of living with an active addiction. I have learned that sharing my experience, strength and hope with others assures me on a daily basis that I don’t ever have to revisit the life I was living before February 5h, 1999… the day I was released from jail and the day I took my last drink.