A Neuroscientist Explores Addiction

Judith Grisel’s professional and personal experiences are revealing a great deal about drugs and addiction.

Dr. Grisel is a neuroscientist and professor. She has also experienced decades of living sober after alcohol and marijuana misuse. These personal experiences inform her professional work, which includes the book Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.

In an interview on the radio program Fresh Air, Grisel told host Terry Gross that drinking wine at the age of thirteen was a revelation. Grisel said she felt better, more secure, and less anxious. She admitted, “It felt like a ticket to me…. [I felt that] this is how people survive the pains of living.”

But, Grisel also said that drinking alcohol or using drugs so young can be particularly dangerous. Such use could possibly even lead to addiction and treatment at rehab centers.

Adolescents and young adults who abuse substances risk damage because their brains “are plastic,” said Grisel, because they’re at ages when the “brain is forming permanent structures.” This means that youthful drug or alcohol use may have a greater impact than if people use later in life.

The neuroscientist explained that human bodies can adapt to foreign substances remarkably well, perhaps too well. People who regularly use caffeine to stay awake will be tired without caffeine. People who use sleeping pills may not be able to sleep if they stop taking them.

Often, our bodies will adjust to changes because they seek normality. This includes using drugs or alcohol. Our bodies tolerate the effects of such substances, but we feel that we need the substances to feel physically normal. We may feel as if we need the substances to feel psychologically normal as well. This psychological balance is sometimes called homeostasis.

With regular use, our bodies and brains become accustomed to drugs or alcohol. This means that they might not get us high anymore or relax us the way they once they did. This might prompt us to drink more alcohol or take more drugs than we did before.

Our bodies might adjust to the increased amounts of alcohol or drugs we consume, but they can’t do so forever. The human body can’t withstand an unlimited amount of alcohol or drugs.

Life is largely about balance, and substance abuse is anything but balance. Effective treatment can help restore such balance in all areas of life.