2 Dream Factory - Biochemical Messengers by Theo Verwey and Dr Daan Steyn
How important is the brain in behaviour? Although the Egyptians had a highly-developed civilisation and an equally highly developed anthropology, they did not regard the brain as important. It was believed that the centre for decision making was the solar plexus, which consists of a number of nerve centres approximately where the stomach is situated in the middle of the body. Since these are nerve-cells, the solar plexus consists of similar grey matter as the brain.
How important is the brain in behaviour? Although the Egyptians had a highly-developed civilisation and an equally highly developed anthropology, they did not regard the brain as important. It was believed that the centre for decision making was the solar plexus, which consists of a number of nerve centres approximately where the stomach is situated in the middle of the body. Since these are nerve-cells, the solar plexus consists of similar grey matter as the brain.
In the Old Testament, which has a complex anthropology, the brain is never mentioned. The heart fulfils the role of the brain to a large extent. Thus, for example, Gen 6:5 speaks of “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart”. It is written that Pharaoh “hardened his heart” meaning that he made a decision (Ex 7:14). In 1 Kings 3:9 Solomon asks for an “understanding heart” to enable him to rule wisely and God grants him a “wise and discerning heart” (3:12). The heart can be “discouraged” (Num. 32:7,9) and “joyful”(1 Kings 8:66). In Job 38:36 it is written that the Lord “gives understanding” to the heart. The brain, however, played no part in thinking or human (or animal) behaviour.
One reason for this could be that the brain itself does not experience sensations such as pain or pleasure. One experiences the effects of anger, pain, fear, overeating, fasting, and so forth in the rest of the body (for example, the heart, the stomach and in the region of the solar plexus) and it would therefore be logical to pay more attention to these parts of the body.
In the New Testament exactly the same applies. For example, in Lk 2:35 it is written that “the thoughts of the heart” will be revealed. Other words used in the New Testament (for example, the words for “soul” and “mind”), may have some relevance in this context but in the New Testament none of these words are associated with a biological organ such as the brain.
The ancient Greeks and their philosophers such as Aristotles, Socrates and Plato also did not regard the brain as important. As we shall see, these famous thinkers regarded the brain as a gland.
How do we view the brain these days? The brain is still a big mystery, even to Western medical science. On 1 January 1990 an American programme, the Decade of the Brain, was introduced. This programme dedicated the Nineties to brain research. The reason for this is the fact that, although the importance of the brain has been known for centuries, it is still, in the words of John Oldham (1997), a largely unknown terrain. Major progress has been made as a result of this programme, for example the discovery of the genetic base of Huntington’s Disease and Wilson’s Disease. Leon Jaroff (1998) also writes that within the next thirty years the genes that predispose a person to many of the common ailments will have been identified. Impressive new technologies (with names such as magnetic resonance imagery and positron emission tomography) are utilised not only for research on normal and abnormal brain structures, but also for direct observation of neurons in the brain.
Nonetheless John McCrone (1997) writes that little progress has in fact been made in understanding the functioning of the brain, because the wrong model has been used. According to this author it is incorrect to think of the brain as a computer that processes masses of data every second. New dynamic views on brain neurology and the functioning of the brain are so different and complicated that mathematical theories, such as the complexity theory, are necessary to understand it. In this text we will merely attempt to provide a general impression gained from the relevant literature.
Since the brains of living and conscious animals can now be studied with new techniques, the brain can be studied in action, and it is becoming clear that all the parts of the brain resonate simultaneously (as a whole). McCrone (1997) explains that it is similar to throwing a stone into a dam. A stone causes a ripple that spreads throughout the dam. At the same time there are other stimuli or stones landing in the dam, causing other ripples. The whole dam is in fact affected, even the parts that appear to be calm.
One could compare a brain cell to a drop of water that reflects the whole process in the dam. It is important to understand that the whole dam is “moving” all the time. In the same way the entire brain is constantly in action. Even cells where little activity or change is measured, are “awake” and participating, just like a player in a team who is not actually on the field, yet is ready to continue with the game at any time. New techniques also allow a waiting period of a few seconds after a stimulus is applied before the reaction of a cell and of the whole brain is studied. It is then possible to observe that, in addition to the reaction of a cell or an area of the brain, various areas of the brain are in fact working together. One then begins to realise what concepts such as “unity and cooperation” and also “chaotic and complex processes that are self-regulating” actually entail.
How does this affect our self-concept? A great deal of interesting holistic-oriented research has been conducted regarding the self-awareness of the human being or the experiencing of “me”. It is certainly not an intellectual or a simple verbal process. The research done by Damasio (1998), for instance, indicates that the entire brain works as a unit to give a certain sense of physical being and homoeostatic balance that can be interpreted as “me”. The brain constantly monitors all the processes that keep a person alive, while at the same time forming an image of “me”. According to Damasio, self-awareness and the self-concept are, in this sense, the same as the process of controlling life functions and are an important part of the biological life processes.
In laymen’s terms, you can, for example, imagine asking at any time: “How do I feel?”. The brain will then immediately have all the available information on the body, the environment, and so forth at hand, and you will be able to tell yourself: “I feel good, I am well”. In this way all the sensations and information are interpreted and put into words to provide an answer. For people who are not that interested in words, there will only be the experience of “well-being”. As the embodiment of self-awareness, “I” is obviously more than a mere thought or word.
This view also provides a good explanation of the now widely held finding that the fastest way to feel better about yourself, i.e. that is to make your self-concept more positive, is to increase your physical fitness. Some preliminary studies (Noakes, 1994) also indicate that exercise can improve intellectual activity. However, one of the best-known and most gifted physicists, John Hawkins, is a physically disabled person who excels intellectually despite his condition.
One can imagine the possible effect on such a complicated system should artificially manufactured substances, such as LSD or an excess of natural substances such as alcohol or marijuana or even coffee or tea, be introduced into the body and brain, and how this can result in confusion. Gavin Mikonos very clearly described such an experience. Even a rush of adrenaline greatly influences a person’s view of himself, either positively or negatively, as described by George du Toit, not primarily because the thoughts are influenced, but because the biochemical and electromagnetic processes are changed.
The experiences of “stability”, “self-confidence”, “aggression”, “anxiety”, and so forth are therefore not merely thoughts or aspects of the imagination - these are names we give to actual physical conditions and fluctuations.
How do these findings influence our view of the human being? If one reflects on this and attempts to put this research into a wider context, all kinds of questions arise. For example, where does Descartes’ statement: “I think, therefore I am”, fit in? Will this paradigm be completely discarded? What will future research yield? What it does in fact mean is that students of the Bible, of philosophy, of psychology and of the biological sciences may reconsider their view of what a human being is. Clearly the Bible and the philosophers of antiquity followed approaches that differ from ours, now this is also true of modern research.
Still, it appears that we have progressed from the early attempts by scientists in all the disciplines at the beginning of this century to understand the human being by means of a mechanistic view of the world. This view divided the human being into body, soul and spirit (as well as reason). This was very convenient because this made it possible to analyse everything, in the same way that water is analysed into two H’s and one O in a laboratory. Unfortunately such analyses are false and artificial, not true to life.
We now know that there are dynamic chemical and electromagnetic processes within ourselves that not only influence behaviour, but are to a large extent part of behaviour itself. In a certain sense this is what a human being is - a dynamic, living, reasoning, self-regulating unit. A person with a deficiency (of which he is not aware) is driven to supplement this deficiency, just like a thirsty person will look for water. His biochemical need makes him the person he is. For lack of a better term we refer to such a driven human being as “an addict”.
This person lives with other individuals, and together they form a self-regulating unit referred to as the “marriage”, the “family”, the “congregation” or the “community”. Indications are that there is also a biochemical similarity between the addict and the co-dependents and one of the aims of these self-regulating, biochemical units is to maintain the chemical balance in the system.
One should also bear in mind that, as indicated in the historical overview in the previous chapter, one of the major problems nowadays is that the individual suddenly has to control himself in the midst of abundance and buying power. In earlier times external control by the group was a major and natural part of what we call “the conscience”, and this is still true to some extent. Human beings are actually gregarious animals rather than loners, and this may be an important factor when discussing dependency and co-dependency.
Is consciousness only within oneself? From a somewhat different perspective of group dynamics we may also ask whether the unit in which people exist does not also have an invisible or spiritual aspect. Is this perhaps what Paul refers to when he writes: "be of one mind” and "we have the mind which was also in Christ"? From this perspective consciousness is a much wider concept and reality than the “self-awareness” mentioned above. Grof (1990), a psychiatrist working in the transpersonal field, writes that we may start thinking about consciousness in a new way. We can free ourselves from "the preconception that consciousness is something created within the human brain... consciousness is something that exists outside and independent of us” (p. 83). However, it is very important to remember that this only adds another facet - consciousness can never exist without the body and the functioning of the brain, as described above. Consciousness manifests itself in and through our bodies and behaviour.
People’s behaviour can of course be studied from many angles, and we will return to this in later chapters. Here we are still concerned with developing a view of the human being. We can now ask: Do new findings mean that there are possibly great truths hidden in the Bible, which, because of our lack of knowledge, we have thus far not been able to understand? Perhaps the ancient Greeks and the authors of the New Testament were ahead of us in some respects. Perhaps they viewed life from another perspective, another paradigm.
Is the brain a gland? Bergland’s view. Bergland, a neurosurgeon who wrote a book titled The fabric of mind - a radical new understanding of the brain and how it works, thinks that this is indeed the case. When the book was published in 1984, it was seen as a radical approach because it deemed chemical processes to be more important than electrical and mechanical processes in the brain.
Up to that stage ideas about the brain were rather similar to what most of us probably still think. The brain was believed to comprise parts or areas such as the motor area, the speech area and the visual area. This reflected the old Cartesian model of dividing everything into smaller parts to form a jigsaw puzzle. In this view these areas are activated when electrical impulses move along the nerve and stimulate the area. Depending on the area stimulated, the person will then talk or see or move. The basic element is electricity, and people are able to think because an electrical impulse stimulates an area in the brain. Thinking was therefore regarded as a “brain activity”.
As a neurologist, Bergland studied the brain from a different angle. He came to the conclusion that the brain is hollow, because it is filled with liquid and is a gland with an endocrine function. Bergland argued that the brain is a gland that produces hormones. He subsequently wrote that the basis of thought is not electricity but hormones. Hormones are released in the brain, and affect our behaviour and thoughts.
Even more interesting is the fact that other glands also produce hormones and should thoughts indeed be mediated or caused by hormones, thoughts can also be initiated from outside the brain. This sounds quite logical, because what it in fact means, is that when sex glands are stimulated, “sex hormones” are secreted. These flow to the brain and cause a person to have sexual thoughts. Similarly hormones from the adrenal glands can flow to the brain and initiate aggressive thoughts.
Incidentally, dietitians say that the endocrine glands can only produce their hormones from the essential fatty acids omega 3 (found in fish oil) and omega 6 (in plant oil). As a result a diet lacking these elements can lead to aberrant behaviour. Bergland describes the relationship between behaviour and nutrition as follows: when the brain is fed too many hormones, this may lead to addictions to substances such as alcohol, nicotine, coffee and drugs.
On the other hand, as will be discussed below, it becomes clear that sufficient levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, can have a positive influence on a person’s frame of mind.
Bergland reports that within ten years of the brain being identified as a gland, psychiatrists are looking for skewed hormones as well as skewed human relationships.
The really important point, however, is the paradigm shift represented by this conclusion - the shift from the electrical and mechanistic view of the brain and behaviour to an electrochemical and biochemical model which is also ecologically more correct. This is another example of the “biochemical world” we are beginning to experience.
How applicable is the Cartesian paradigm at this stage? Before we continue with this idea, it is interesting to read Bergland’s comments on paradigms.
Firstly he points out that these findings are in fact in line with the classical view of the brain (such as those of the Greek philosophers) which regarded the brain as a gland. The paradigm used for the past 200 years, from the time of Descartes, which assumed that the cognitive processes were dependent on electrical impulses, is wrong. The present (1984) paradigm no longer makes sense. While this paradigm lasted for 200 years, the paradigm of antiquity - of the Greeks, the Romans and the Egyptians, and the Bible - was effective for thousands of years.
Bergland’s view was not completely new. On the one hand, serotonin was discovered in the brain in the 1950s and dopamine in the 1960s, but their functions were not clear. On the other hand Ariane Barth reported in 1992 that German scientists have discovered the functioning of chemical substances in the brain called “endorphins”. These endorphins mediate experiences of joy and pain, and Barth’s article will be discussed in the next chapter.
In 1996 an American researcher, Richard Depue (1997), demonstrated how dopamine influences the type of joy a person experiences. Depue shows that the higher the dopamine levels in the brain, the more sensitive a person becomes to rewards. Such a person will then be more motivated to work for rewards such as money, sex, food and achievements. Short-term memory is also improved.
Depue states that a better understanding of biochemical influences on the temperament and personality traits will enable us to form a better concept of personality and behavioural problems. He adds that there is overwhelming proof that 50% to 70% of individual differences in personality tests are related to genetic influences. This is in line with the conclusions reached by RB Cattel (1970) after extensive testing with the 16PF.
In January/February 1997 it was also reported in the Townsend Newsletter for Doctors that research by the American Psychiatric Association indicated that 50% of the population of the USA show signs of chemical imbalances in the brain. Symptoms can include anxiety, depression and insomnia. It was also reported that refined sugar, alcohol, marijuana and LSD are neurotoxic, which means these substances impede or even harm the functioning of the brain. Subsequently people with a craving for sweets, junk food, alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and so forth are actually trying to correct an imbalance in the brain. Researchers of the medical school of the New York University, in the same issue, describe this as a form of self-medication.
1. ancient cultures did not regard the brain as very important in thinking and behaviour, but did recognise it as a gland;
2. Bergland’s research supports the view that the brain is a gland and stresses the importance of hormones, rather than electrical impulses, in behaviour;
3. this view is supported by the findings of researchers from Germany and America that chemical substances in the brain, i.e. that is endorphins and other neurotransmitters, can influence happiness, pain and motivation;
4. substances used daily, such as sugar and alcohol, are neurotoxic;
5. even more recent research shows that the brain as a whole is constantly busy and “resonates” as a unit and some researchers are of the opinion that the research done to date on brain neurology seems to be outdated because the model of the brain as a type of computer is not correct, and that a new model and paradigm will have to be found, and
6. it seems that everyone who is interested in human behaviour - theologians, psychologists, physicians, philosophers, sociologists - are in a good position to once again reflect on the essence of human nature and behaviour, including both positive and negative behaviour.
What is of more immediate importance here, is that the findings regarding the biochemical functioning of the brain have direct implications for behaviour and addiction. This will now be discussed.
What are the smallest parts of the brain? For the latest information on the brain the reader is referred to the important book Neuroscience by Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, Katz, LaMantia and McNamara (1997). For the purposes of this discussion it is sufficient to know that the brain has approximately one hundred billion cells grouped into two distinct spheres which are connected. According to Yepsen (1987) most nerve cells are not replaced or restored when they are damaged or destroyed. Brain cells generate approximately twenty watts of electricity, and use about 20 percent of the body’s energy. The average brain weighs about one and a half kilograms and some nerve cells are up to a metre in length.
Can the brain feed itself? Although the brain is thoroughly protected by various structures such as the skull and blood-brain-barrier, it is an integral part of the body. This interaction with the rest of the body is essential, because the brain cannot manufacture or store the nutrients (mainly glucose and NAD) necessary for generating energy. As a result it must constantly be fed by structures outside the brain.
It is interesting to note that the brain will always continue to develop as long as the environment stimulates it and new information has to be processed. In addition, goals are not only achieved by adequate mental abilities, but primarily because of the absence of negative factors such as anxiety, sleep disorders, insufficient exercise and neurotoxic nutrition.
What are synapses and neurotransmitters? The gaps between brain cells are called synapses, and one brain cell has a number of synaptic links with other brain cells. Communication between nerve cells occurs mainly through electrical and chemical synapses. Electrical synapses were identified first, but are present in the brain only to a very small extent. In electrical synapses, the message from one brain cell to another is conducted by an electrical current. In chemical synapses, chemical compounds, the neurotransmitters or brain messengers, is formed and carries messages from one nerve cell to other nerve cells (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al., 1997).
Especially in the treatment of addictions it is very important that the neurotransmitters be removed from the synaptic gap when it is secreted. Substances of abuse causes a surplus secretion of certain neurotransmitters in the synapses, i.e. the resulting kick or thrill. The removal of the neurotransmitters and secretion of new ones allow the next message to be processed. Neurotransmitters are normally removed from the synapses by:
1. re-absorption in the pre-synaptic cell;
2. metabolising by the appropriate enzymes and also
3. diffusion from the synapses.
However, when there is a surplus of neurotransmitters in the synapses, these three functions are inhibited, and the neurotransmitters can be transformed to neurotoxins in the synapses.
How many neurotransmitters are there? Ten major neurotransmitters and approximately 300 small neuropeptides have been identified (Yepsen, 1987). The small neuropeptides influence behaviour related to thirst, memory, sex, pain and reward. They are probably also responsible for the so-called “joggers’ high”.
When can a chemical substance be regarded as a neurotransmitter? The following conditions apply. A chemical compound should:
1. be present in the presynaptic brain cell;
2. be secreted in the synapse as a result of presynaptic depolarisation; and
3. specific receptors must be present in the membranes of the postsynaptic cell in order to be classified as a neurotransmitter. Most presynaptic brain cells can secrete more than one type of neurotransmitter or neuropeptide, and the postsynaptic cells also have various receptors that can interact with these neurotransmitters.
The quantity or levels of these neurotransmitters and neuropeptides in the brain vary according to the availability of their precursors, which are the substances from which they are produced. These substances are in turn absorbed from the nutritional elements that are taken in as food, for example.
How important is food? The brain never outgrows the need for a well-balanced diet. Diets must, however, also be developed according to a person’s distinctive needs, and should not necessarily be set according to a general diet. Nutrition has a very important influence on behaviour.
Food rich in carbohydrates, for instance, leads to the forming of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which can in turn lead to a relaxed feeling and often also to sleepiness.
People have always been aware that certain substances found in plants have a “psychological” effect on their moods. Some of these substances are derived from plant juices, mushrooms, certain algae and seeds, and people experimented with these to change a mood or to change behaviour. Today these experiments still continue, but in a more sophisticated way with the aid of modern laboratories that manufacture these new substances.
How do chemical substances affect the functioning of neurotransmitters in the synapses? According to Maisto, Galizio and Connors (1991) there are a number of ways in which chemical substances can influence the functioning of neural transmission. The best-known of these is imitation. For example, morphine and heroin imitate the functioning of the neurotransmitter known as endorphin. In other words, the brain reacts to morphine and heroin as though it is endorphin. The effects of endorphin and happiness as discussed by Barth (1992)are referred to at various points in this discussion.
Maisto, Galizio and Connors also refer to the following eight mechanisms through which chemical substances can change the functioning of neural transmission:
1. neurotransmitter synthesis: chemical substances can enhance or diminish the formation of neurotransmitters;
2. neurotransmitter transport: certain chemical substances can inhibit the transport of neurotransmitters to the ends of the axons;
3. neurotransmitter storage: storage of neurotransmitters in the vesicles in axon endings is often influenced in various ways by chemical substances;
4. neurotransmitter secretion: chemical substances can also influence the secretion of neurotransmitters, for example, by premature secretion;
5. metabolising of neurotransmitters: chemical substances can influence the enzyme action responsible for the metabolising of neurotransmitters;
6. neurotransmitter re-absorption: chemical substances can inhibit the re-absorption of neurotransmitters in the axon endings by blocking the openings in the ends;
7. receptor activation: as explained previously, a chemical substance can activate the receptor in the postsynaptic brain cell by imitating the functioning of the neurotransmitter; and
8.receptor blocking: chemical substances can also block the receptor so that the relevant neurotransmitter cannot activate the receptor to continue with the biochemical message.
“However, a point to remember is that although drugs can interact with the brain in many different ways, the effects of the drugs always involve naturally occurring processes. That is, some systems in the brain or body with defined natural functions are made more or less active by the drug. The differences between the effects of various drugs are coming to be understood in terms of which transmitter systems they influence, and exactly how they influence them” (Maisto, Galizio and Connors, 1991, pp. 56-57).
What is the present situation regarding neurotransmitters or brain messengers and behaviour? Acetylcholine was one of the first neurotransmitters to be discovered. However, as is the case with all other neurotransmitters, its functioning is still relatively unknown. As better techniques and instruments are developed, the functioning of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides in the brain will be determined more specifically and accurately. This in turn will lead to more purposeful interventions with regard to psychological disorders.
Which neurotransmitters are known? In answer to this question we will briefly discuss the more familiar neurotransmitters and neuropeptides and their functioning and influence on behaviour.
Acetylcholine is produced from the coenzyme acetyl-Co-A and plays an important role in regulating thirst and memory, and possibly also in Alzheimer’s disease (Maisto, Galizio and Connors, 1991). Acetylcholine is also produced from choline which plays an important role in brain metabolism and the structural maintenance of the synapses (Yepsen, 1987). It also plays a role in sleep, learning and memory, aggressive behaviour and depression. Depression is often related to increased acetylcholine levels. According to Lataste and Basle (1984) low dosages of nicotine will enhance the functioning of acetylcholine.
Choline levels, the precursors of acetylcholine, often decrease drastically as we become older.
Dopamine plays a very important role in motor movement, and a deficiency may play a part in Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine is also linked to schizophrenia. Dopamine facilitates deep sleep, learning, memory and coping with pain. It contributes to a cheerful mood, alertness, increased aggression and sexuality. Low dopamine levels are often related to depression (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
Drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines increase the production of dopamine levels. Low levels of these two substances improve the mental state, but ingestion of excessive levels leads to paranoid delusions and loss of reality (Maisto, Galizio and Connors, 1991).
Substances such as apomorphine, amantadine, bromocriptine and pergolide promote the functioning of dopamine. Certain anti-psychotic substances, on the other hand, inhibit the functioning of dopamine (Lataste and Basle, 1984).
Serotonin is one of the most common neurotransmitters in brain cells. It plays a very important role in regulating sleep. It is possible that serotonin also plays a role in clinical depression (Maisto, Gilazio & Connors, 1991). Serotonin is produced from the amino-acid tryptophan, which is found mainly in meat and dairy products (Yepsen, 1987, Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, Katz, LaMantia and McNamara, 1997). Very low serotonin levels were also found in the brains of alcoholics who committed suicide (Yepsen, 1987).
Serotonin is involved in regulating body temperature, the beginning of deep sleep, controlling spinal reflex activity, suppressing autonomous impulses and modulating increasing pain impulses. Serotonin is also associated in coping with pain, cheerful mood and decreased aggression and sexuality (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
Tricyclic antidepressants and cocaine promote the functioning of serotonin. It controls the sleep-awake cycle.
Noradrenaline is also known as norepinephrine and plays an important role in regulating hunger, mental alertness and arousal. It is possible that noradrenaline also plays a role in clinical depression(Maisto, Gilazio and Connors, 1991). Noradrenaline is produced from the neurotransmitter dopamine (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, Katz, LaMantia and McNamara, 1997). According to Meij and Meyer (1988) people with lowered noradrenaline levels often become depressed, while amphetamine and MAO-inhibitors, which increase noradrenaline levels, lead to cheerful moods. It also plays a very important role in sleeping and awakening.
Clonidine is a well-known medication that may improve the functioning of noradrenaline in the same way as cocaine and amphetamine. Serotonin plays a role in the sleep-awake cycle, learning and memory, cheerful moods and emotional behaviour, and decreases aggressive behaviour (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
5. Endorphins and Encephalin
In the late seventies morphine-like substances (neuropeptides) were discovered in the brain, and later identified as the neurotransmitter endorphins, called encephalin by other researchers. They act on the opiate receptors and their functioning is also imitated by morphine and heroin. Endorphins play an important role in regulating pain (Maisto, Gilazio & Connors, 1991) as well as in euphoria, sleep and the suppression of breathing (Meij and Meyer, 1988). Naloxone is one of the better-known medications which inhibits the functioning of endorphins (Meij en Meyer, 1988).
As described throughout this book, endorphins play an important role in the experience of happiness and are also secreted during sex and exercise.
6. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
This neurotransmitter is produced from the amino-acid glutamate. It is found in most of the brain tissues, and differs from the other neurotransmitters because it inhibits the functioning of the receptor. When this happens more of the other neurotransmitters have to be present in the synapses to initiate the activation of the receptors. Some of the chemical substances that influence the GABA system include certain antidepressants, alcohol, barbiturates and certain tranquillizers such as diazepam and chlordiazepoxide (Maisto, Gilazio & Connors, 1991). It is possible that GABA also plays a role in certain psychological disorders, convulsions and sleepiness. Lower than normal levels are found particularly in the cortex of epileptics (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
Histamine is produced from the amino acid histidine which is secreted by the mast cells during allergic reactions or tissue damage (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, Katz, LaMantia and McNamara, 1997). Histamine is associated with discomfort and allergies.
8. Adrenaline (Epinephrine)
This neurotransmitter is produced from noradrenaline (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al., 1997). Adrenaline is also known as the fight or flight neurotransmitter because it prepares the body for action and activates the brain to act in a more focussed manner (Yepsen, 1987). It plays a role in the sleep-awake cycle, learning and memory, happy moods and emotional behaviour, and decreases aggressive behaviour (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
This neurotransmitter is produced from serine and has an inhibiting effect on the receptors of the postsynaptic cells (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al, 1997). Glycine deficiencies are often found in alcoholics.
Glutamate is produced from glutamine, and is one of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain. Increased extracellular levels of glutamate, as a result of neural injuries, are neurotoxic to the neurons (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al., 1997).
11 Adenosine triphosphate (ATP)
ATP is found in all vesicles filled with neurotransmitters and probably acts as co-transmitter. In certain neurons it acts as the primary neurotransmitter and as such is responsible for activating the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al, 1997).
Taurine is found throughout the nervous system with the highest concentration in the cerebellum(Meij and Meyer, 1988).
13. Aspartic acid
This neurotransmitter has a function similar to that of glutamate in the central nervous system (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
These fatty acid derivatives possibly also act as neurotransmitters, and are associated with pain and fever reactions (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
15. Substance P
This 11-amino-acid peptide is abundant in the central nervous system, and possibly plays a role as a neurotransmitter in transmitting pain impulses (Meij and Meyer, 1988).
How do neurotransmitters differ from hormones? Hormones are natural chemical substances secreted by the brain and certain other glands, and released into the bloodstream. They then act as chemical messengers to take the instructions from the brain throughout the body, and to give feedback to the brain on the functioning of the body (Yepsen, 1987).
Hormones play a very important role in monitoring and regulating cyclic activities such as sleep, nutrition and sex. The released hormones often also influence the functioning of the brain. A well-known example is the hormone adrenaline which is released by the adrenal glands and also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain.
Why is medication used in the treatment of addictions? The science of using medication to influence the functioning of the brain and behaviour is known as psychopharmacology. It is still in its infancy, and most of the important medications used at present have been developed since 1949 (Hyman & Arana, 1987). Researchers agree that certain psychopharmacological interventions, even after the initial detoxification, should be an integral part of the treatment of addicts (Bender, 1990; Baekeland, Lundwall & Kissin, 1975; Bourne & Homiller, 1978; Hyman & Arana, 1987; Kaufman, 1978; Kleber, 1978; O'Malley, Jaffe, Chang, Schottenfeld, Meyer & Rounsaville, 1992; Schecter & Schecter, 1978; Volpicelli, Alterman, Hayashida & O'Brien, 1992).
Bender (1990, p. 98) unequivocally states that "the argument for considering the 'whole person' instead of applying only medical-surgical procedures to an affliction may now be turned on those who would apply only psychological treatments for an addiction that would benefit from appropriate 'physiological' medication intervention. In the effective treatment of addiction there is therefore at present no room whatsoever for the anti-medication approach such as that of Rogers and McMillin (1989).
When concentrating on the most relevant findings concerning biochemical changes (and the accompanying ways of dealing with it) in addicts, there are various psychopharmacological interventions that are important.
1. Certain substances (such as naltrexone) are used to decrease or even completely block the identified receptors’ affinity for the undesirable substance(Alterman, O'Brien & McLellan, 1991; Arif & Westermeyer, 1988; Bender, 1990; Blum & Payne, 1991; Hollman, 1990; Kleber, 1978; Marion & Coleman, 1991; Miller, Frances & Holmes, 1989; O'Malley, Jaffe, Chang, Schottenfeld, Meyer & Rounsaville, 1992; Schecter & Schecter, 1978; Volpicelli, Alterman, Hayashida & O'Brien, 1992).
Nowadays reference is often made to the use of medication to protect the brain against the effects of drugs. "Wikler's theory provided a theoretical basis for the use of antagonists in opiate abuse therapy. According to his conceptualization, the antagonist would create the proper conditions for extinguishing the drug-taking response by eliminating reinforcement of drug-taking behavior" (Schecter & Schecter, 1978, p.59). However, this chemical form of isolation addresses only the symptom without treating the underlying problem, for example NAD or similar deficiency.
2. Substitute substances with considerably fewer side effects at psychological, physiological and sociological levels, are used. For example, methadone is used to considerably improve the functioning of heroin abusers on a number of levels (Alterman, O'Brien & McLellan, 1991; Arif & Westermeyer, 1988; Bender, 1990; Marion & Coleman, 1991).
3. The decreased levels of certain neurotransmitters (as a result of substance abuse) can be restored to a high degree through regular use of specific medication. Taking desipramine, selegliline or tyrosine, for instance, can increase the natural dopamine levels (Bender, 1990; Blum & Payne, 1991; Holman, 1990).
4. The number of active receptors is often reduced through long-term exposure to certain undesirable chemical substances that render some of them inactive. In such cases suitable medication should be taken to enable (for example bromocriptine in the case of the dopamine receptors) the available receptors to resume their functioning (Bender, 1990; Blum & Payne, 1991; Climko, 1991; Miller, Frances & Holmes, 1989; White, 1990).
5. The use of certain medications can have a therapeutic effect on the levels of some neurotransmitters. Clonidine for example influences the norepinephrine levels, and also reduces the acute craving for alcohol and nicotine (Alterman, O'Brien & McLellan, 1991; Buccafusco, 1992; Sees, 1991; West & Kranzler, 1990).
6. The levels of enzymes/coenzymes necessary for the metabolism of undesirable substances and for normal energy production can be increased by administering certain medications such as NAD (O’Halleren, 1961, Cleary, 1986, Ekelson, 1989). NAD also plays an important role in the effective functioning of the brain, and is also involved in the formation of certain neurotransmitters.
7. A certain number of substance abusers (addicts) suffer from psychiatric and/or physical problems which are concealed by their addiction. These problems necessitate the long-term use of medication. Examples of such medication are lithium, carbamazepine and certain antidepressants and neuroleptic medicines (Alterman, O'Brien & McLellan, 1991; Arif & Westermeyer, 1988; Climko, 1991; Cole & Ryback, 1979; Julien, 1992; Marion & Coleman, 1991; Miller, Frances & Holmes, 1989; Quitkin & Rabkin, 1982).
Does the brain also contain NAD? According to Meij and Meyer (1988) NAD and NADP are found in abundance in brain tissue, and serious and permanent brain dysfunction and damage and scars can ensue if there is a long-lasting deficiency of these coenzymes. For a more comprehensive discussion on the functions of NAD in both the body and the brain, the reader is referred to chapter one.
What is meant by fatigue? Fatigue is possibly one of the brain’s warning systems to indicate that the body is overtaxed and needs a period of rest and recovery. The long-term functioning of the human body may be compared to that of a corner café.
Firstly, supplies have to be available to trade with, and these supplies have to be replenished on a regular basis. In the case of the body certain nutrients are necessary, and these have to be processed to chemical substances which can be used by the brain and body. These nutrients become depleted, and have to be supplemented regularly through healthy and suitable foods.
Secondly, sales are necessary in the case of the café. In the case of the body, work has to be done. During this process the body’s levels of important chemical substances are depleted, and a state of fatigue sets in. Just as the café has to close for certain periods, the body also has to be allowed time to recover. To summarize: the process comprises three cycles: supply, activity and recovery.
An important warning system, namely, the feeling of tiredness or fatigue is masked or hidden when addictive substances or habits are used. The body is then forced to operate on emergency supplies. Yepsen (1987) states that this type of behaviour can be enforced over a long period of time, but that a very high price will eventually be paid in the form of serious damage to brain and body.
Although a balanced diet is important, this is often not sufficient, because the metabolic processes of some people cannot make the necessary nutrients available. They cannot obtain them from a diet only for genetic reasons.
Why is this information necessary? One of the prerequisites for effectively dealing with a problem, is a thorough insight into, or at least substantial knowledge of, the specific problem and the factors that cause and maintain it. All addictions affect the functioning of the brain, and a knowledge of these changes facilitates more effective therapeutic interventions.
Traditionally most addictions are regarded as simply being wrong habits that can be corrected. However, no one can do without biochemical necessities, such as water and other important substances, although these can be managed effectively by suitable therapeutic interventions. Hoffer and Walker (1994) for example, explain that seemingly healthy older people often suffer dehydration. In such cases older people literally have to learn to drink water regularly to prevent dehydration. This loss of awareness of thirst is often related to a zinc deficiency which can be fatal if the person does not consciously drink water regularly. Another misconception is that this imbalance (the need for water) can be neutralised by drinking tea, coffee or cool drinks. In most cases this only further destabilises the body’s natural chemical balances, and increases the possibility of dehydration.
From the above example it is clear that a thorough knowledge of the problem and the accompanying solution plays a very important role in the effective management of a potentially life-threatening situation.
Is therapy, hypnosis, and so forth not enough? NAD deficiencies were discussed in detail in Chapter One. A NAD deficiency, like thirst, cannot be eliminated by hypnosis, spiritual counselling or other sophisticated human sciences interventions alone. The answer is not only to discuss the problem, but to also effectively supplement the identified deficiency or modulate the imbalance. A person suffering from hunger needs food and not recipes or eating utensils.
Solving the problem, even if only at a biological level, becomes so much easier when the underlying problem is understood. Often the person affected does not have the necessary insight into these biological deficiencies. In such a case, the responsibility for its management is transferred to all the significant people with whom the person has regular contact. Ignorance is the basic problem in these cases.
What is the relevance of the relationship between the neurotransmitters? It is said that what is important, within limits, is not the absolute quantities of dopamine and serotonin, but in fact the balance between the two. As explained previously, the brain, like the rest of the body, is constantly involved in self-regulating processes to maintain the various neurotransmitters and other biochemical balances. It may therefore be concluded that the neurotransmitters will also function in specific relations to each other, and that deviations may possibly have certain effects. An excess of dopamine is associated with hallucinations and schizophrenia, while a dopamine deficiency, on the other hand, is associated with Parkinson’s disease and depression.
According to Depue (1996) low levels of serotonin are associated with irritability and emotional fluctuations, making the person more receptive to the effects of dopamine. In such a case the person is more susceptible to drugs that increase dopamine levels.
The effect of different relationships between neurotransmitters could not be established from existing literature.
What effect does “happiness” have on the secretion of neurotransmitters? Barth (1992) associates happiness with endorphins, and Depue (1996) explains that dopamine makes us positive. If happiness means feeling positive or cheerful, or what “druggies” call “high”, then it is related to increased adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, endorphin and serotonin levels. The opposite is also true. When we realise that something is making us happy, our dopamine level would be the first to increase, followed by an increase in other relevant neurotransmitter levels. The effect of the neurotransmitter change is to make us feel good.
How does stress affect the neurotransmitters? In the initial stress phase, when the environment is carefully evaluated, dopamine will be released freely to keep us in a state of alertness. If the stress continues, the neurotransmitter adrenaline is secreted which, together with the stress hormones, prepare us for the fight or flight reaction.
How do we make ourselves to feel happy or guilty? Our feelings are closely related to our actions, and "doing nothing" is also an action. Many people can switch themselves off at the end of the day and relax. Others need a cocktail, music, a snack or something similar before they can relax. All feelings have a physical component to which we give a descriptive name such as sadness, happiness, guilt, etcetera. Our energy levels also play a major role in experiencing and perceiving our feelings.
Why do people lie awake at night? Too much dopamine (coffee late at night) or adrenaline (worry or stress) may cause this. People with naturally high levels of adrenaline or dopamine are described as night owls because they can be very active until late at night.
How does sex affect neurotransmitter levels? Why is it addictive or a “self-medication”? Sex accompanied by an orgasm differs from sex without an orgasm. During the orgasm endorphin is secreted in the brain, which explains the intense feeling of joy. This endorphin also suppresses appetite and is the origin of the saying that newlyweds or lovers can exist on lovemaking and cold water. For a small group of people this secretion is often their only experience of happiness, and they become addicted to it. In other words, they become preoccupied with the feeling associated with sex.
Sex without an orgasm is often experienced as degrading and painful. Most experiences of pain lead to the release of painkillers by the body. Endorphin, one of the natural painkillers, is secreted in such a case, but not in the same quantities as during an orgasm.
What does “neurotoxic” mean in the sense that refined food is considered to be “neurotoxic”? How does it influence behaviour? "Neurotoxic" relates to the negative changes in the functioning of the brain cells caused by unwanted chemical substances. Refined food particles may move through the blood-brain barrier in the same way that a drug would, and may possibly impair the functioning of the neurons. "Neurotoxic" also relates to the excessive secretion of neurotransmitters, which builds up in the synapses and become neurotoxic. It is possible that the brain cells may be damaged then.
What role does the learning process and conditioning play in the secretion of neurotransmitters? Neurotransmitters influence behaviour because the substances secreted by the brain and the glands, move through the whole body as explained in the Explanatory Notes under Hormones.
This means that the person’s whole being is saturated with the substance, for example adrenaline, because the bloodstream carries the adrenaline to all the target cells in the body.
In such a case the muscles are primed and ready for action, the speech centres are ready to find and say the applicable words, blood pressure is increased and the person is ready for action.
However, what the person experiences, how he or she interprets the situation and how he or she is going to react, are forms of acquired behaviour. We all know the socialising techniques such as conditioning, imitation, cognitive learning, and so on.
For example, someone sees a naked person of the opposite sex. One person may regard it as his lucky day, and release hormones and substances to become sexually active. Another person has learnt that this is a “bad” situation and interprets it completely differently. The hormones and the levels of endorphins and other substances rise to the extent where the person blushes and feels shy and guilty and is completely impotent.
These reactions are as automatic and as acquired as walking or sitting. After all, we do not say: “I cause my legs to walk”, we rather say: “I walk”. Similarly we do not say: “I release substances in order to feel guilty”. We say: “I feel guilty”.
People, therefore, learn to feel guilty or happy or optimistic or whatever the group (culture) regards as beneficial for survival.
However, all behaviour is not acquired, not even at the biochemical level. Biochemical or physiological conditions exist or develop in the body as a result of heredity, a wrong diet and so forth. One is completely unaware of these conditions, and they are not the result of conditioning or learning.
In our ignorance, of our own unique biochemistry, our existence is determined by our biochemical and physiological conditions. We live according to our neurotransmitters, and are not aware of ourselves. Our subconscious is, in this instance, a biochemical issue. This would be an occasion where one could only say: “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing”.
Take, for example, people with high levels of uric acid as discussed by Dr Henry Davis in the Behavioural Genetic Perspective. He wonders whether they have a type of kamikaze approach. We may well ask whether these are not perhaps the “self-destructive personalities” who never think anything good about themselves, who are always “too fat”, “too stupid” or something similar, even when nobody else shares these opinions. They are always dissatisfied and find it difficult to cope with success.
The conditioning process is important also in the sense that people can learn, for example through relaxation exercises, to release sufficient serotonin in order to become calm and relaxed as the serotonin is carried throughout the body by the bloodstream. (No one will be able to achieve this if the food necessary for the production of serotonin is not eaten and the necessary vitamins, minerals and the resulting neurotransmitters will subsequently not be present in the body).
A human being is a dynamic, self-regulating system and the brain is a type of master organ which, to a lesser or greater extent, integrates all the different systems into a unit. (We still do not know exactly how the brain functions, but this seems to be one of its functions).
Important aspects of this integrated behaviour are conditioning, the learning process and the influence of other people and networks, also at the spiritual and transpersonal levels. Very little has been said in this chapter about this.
In this chapter we concentrated on the biochemical processes and the chemical substances with which the brain and other glands regulate and modulate thinking and behaviour (or cause these to disintegrate into chaos, as experienced by Gavin Mikonos).
This is a very important aspect of behaviour of which relatively little was previously known although it has been studied for decades. As a result, there is scant mention of the biological basis of behaviour in Western anthropology, philosophy, sociology and theology. The result is that theories in these sciences may hang in the air without a foundation in everyday reality. The biochemical bases of everyday behaviour, also regarding faith, have now become (especially in the chemical world in which we now live) too important to be ignored by the human sciences and theology. This will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 8 (Addictions in perspective) and Chapter 46 (Levels of communication).