Nicotine is the main addictive ingredient of tobacco. When somebody smokes a cigarette, nicotine is rapidly absorbed by the lungs and delivered to the brain. Nutt et al’s expert panels rated nicotine (tobacco) as the third most addictive substance.
More than two-thirds of Americans who tried smoking reported becoming dependent during their life. In 2002 the WHO estimated there were more than 1 billion smokers and it has been estimated that tobacco will kill more than 8m people annually by 2030. Laboratory animals have the good sense not to smoke. However, rats will press a button to receive nicotine directly into their bloodstream – and this causes dopamine levels in the brain’s reward system to rise by about 25-40%.
4. Barbiturates (‘downers’)
Barbiturates – also known as blue bullets, gorillas, nembies, barbs and pink ladies – are a class of drugs that were initially used to treat anxiety and to induce sleep. They interfere with chemical signalling in the brain, the effect of which is to shut down various brain regions. At low doses, barbiturates cause euphoria, but at higher doses they can be lethal because they suppress breathing. Barbiturate dependence was common when the drugs were easily available by prescription, but this has declined dramatically as other drugs have replaced them. This highlights the role that the context plays in addiction: if an addictive drug is not widely available, it can do little harm. Nutt et al’s expert panels rated barbiturates as the fourth most addictive substance.
Although legal in the US and UK, alcohol was scored by Nutt et al.’s experts 1.9 out of a maximum of 3. Alcohol has many effects on the brain, but in laboratory experiments on animals it increased dopamine levels in the brain’s reward system by 40-360% – and the more the animals drank the more dopamine levels increased.
Some 22% of people who have taken a drink will develop dependence on alcohol at some point during their life. The WHO has estimated that 2 billion people used alcohol in 2002 and more than 3m people died in 2012 due to damage to the body caused by drinking. Alcohol has been ranked as the most damaging drug by other experts, too.
Eric Bowman, Lecturer in Psychology and Neuroscience , University of St Andrews
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.