Two physicians uncover mechanism whereby substance abuse hijacks the brain
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded 77 years ago by Bill W. and Dr. Bob. They borrowed principles learned from a Christian fellowship called the Oxford Group to create their 12-step recovery program. Now, two physicians have uncovered the physiologic impact of the 12-step program. They have presented their analysis in their book: “Hijacking the Brain: How Drug and Alcohol Addiction Hijacks our Brains – The Science Behind Twelve-Step Recovery.”
“They knew that their spiritual program was effective where other ‘cures’ had failed, and over the years, there have been many theories as to why,” noted Dr. Harry Haroutunian, physician director of the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs, and collaborator with Dr. Louis Teresi on the book. He added, “Now we know that stress is the fuel that feeds addiction, and that stress and drug and alcohol use cause neurological and physiological changes. The changes are primarily in the deep brain reward centers, the limbic brain, responsible for decisions, memory and emotion. These centers are ‘hijacked’ by substance abuse, so that the addicted person wants the booze or drug over anything else. ”
As a scientist and physician applying the 12-step program to his own life, Dr. Teresi studied the physiological changes triggered by this seemingly non-scientific treatment. He explained, “One response is that elements of 12-step programs reduce stress and increase feelings of comfort and reward through chemical changes in the brain and body. These changes allow for neuronogenesis – the birth of neurons in the brain.”
Dr. Teresi notes that as substances of abuse affect the limbic brain, so do 12-step recovery practices. He points out that the 11th step in the program, which emphasizes spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation, works for the following reasons:
Chilling out: Addiction is a cycle of bad habits. When something bad happens, an alcoholic drinks to feel better. When something good occurs, he drinks to celebrate. After years of this behavior, a person needs a way to step outside of himself to maintain sobriety. Regular prayer or meditation achieves that and becomes “that other habitual option” for responding to emotions.
“Mindfulness” meditation: While certain forms of prayer are effective, meditation may be a more direct way to achieve the kind of beneficial self-regulation that makes the 11th step so crucial. Mindfulness meditation incorporates active Focused Attention and the more passive Open Monitoring to raise a person’s awareness of his impulses, leading to better self-control.
The three-fold manner: A successful 11th step tends to have the following benefits: First, stress is relieved in both cognitive and emotional reactivity, as evidenced by reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels and other biological indicators. Second, some forms of meditation are shown to stimulate the brain’s reward centers, releasing dopamine – a mood elevator -- while improving attention and memory. Third, an increased sense of connectivity and empathy to others is achieved, satisfying our natural need for social connection and reducing stress.
Dr. Teresi explains that sobriety is not so much about not drinking or drugging; rather it is about developing an attitude and lifestyle that brings sufficient serenity and personal reward that drinking, or taking any mood-altering drug, is simply unnecessary.
About Dr. Teresi & Dr. Haroutunian:
Louis Teresi earned his medical degree from Harvard, where he completed honors concentration courses in neuroscience. In more than 24 years of practice, he has authored numerous peer-reviewed papers, winning 14 national and international awards for his research, and is a senior member of the American Society of Neuroradiology. He is a grateful recovering alcoholic.
Dr. Harry L. Haroutunian, known as "Dr. Harry," is an internationally known speaker on addiction who has created the "Recovery 101" lecture series. As physician director of the Betty Ford Center, Dr. Haroutunian has contributed to the development of a variety of programs. He is the author of the soon-to-be-published book "Staying Sober When Nothing Goes Right" and collaborated with Dr. Louis Teresi, author of "Hijacking the Brain: How Drug and Alcohol Addiction Hijacks our Brains – The Science Behind Twelve-Step Recovery."
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