Prescription and Illicit Drug Abuse

Frequently Asked Questions

2. How does a person become addicted?

Generally, people take illicit drugs to feel good or feel better than they felt before. This feeling of pleasure, or “high,” that a person gets from taking a drug comes from large, rapid increases in dopamine, a brain chemical. We all get a dopamine “rush” from things that we normally enjoy (such as eating good food or listening to our favorite music). Illicit drugs cause a much more intense and longer lasting increase in dopamine.

Repeated exposure to large, drug-induced dopamine surges dulls the dopamine system’s response to everyday stimuli. So, things we normally enjoy are no longer pleasurable, and even the effects of the drug are not as strong as they once were. But drug abuse doesn’t just affect the pleasure pathway. It also disrupts the brain areas involved in memory/learning and control over behavior, which is why addicted people continue to use drugs even though they know it is harmful, and is also why it is so difficult to stop, even when they want to.