Brains, Addiction, and Conversion
Brains, Addiction, and Conversion
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Tim Jennings, M.D.
Originally posted 3/19/15
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Recently I received the following question:
If there are pathways in our nervous system laid down with addiction, are they destroyed at conversion, or as we walk on a daily basis with CHRIST, or are they always there?
Fascinating new brain research gives ever increasing insight into how our faith relationship with God does change us, including our brains, even to the DNA level.
The human brain is in a constant state of flux. Not only will life experience change the circuitry of the brain, but new research reveals that life experience alters the brain’s genetic expression. And, such change in gene expression can be passed along to our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
If you consider your DNA as a great library of information, the epigenetic (epi means above and genetic means DNA so epigenetic means above the DNA) coding instructs the library on which “books” (gene sequence) to open and which to keep closed. If you consider that each “book” contains a recipe, then by determining which “books” are opened and which are closed the epigenetic instructions determine what each cell becomes and how it functions.
When neural circuits are active the activity in the circuit causes epigenetic changes producing proteins which cause the circuit to grow stronger, branch out new connections, recruit new neurons to the circuit and even make new neurons for the circuit. But when a neural circuit is idle different epigenetic instructions are given and the growth inducing protein is no longer available and instead a protein that prunes neural circuits is produced so that over time an idle circuit is slowly pruned back.
Understanding how epigenetic instructions change neural circuits, we get insight into how habits are formed and broken. Constant engagement in certain patterns of behavior activate the same circuits which cause DNA changes producing proteins which strengthen the particular circuit which corresponds with the behavior. Conversely, by stopping the behavior and leaving the circuit idle the DNA expression actually changes and over time the circuit will be pruned back.
Now let’s consider addictions and finally what conversion can do.
What constitutes an addiction? The definition I have found to be most accurate in describing an addiction is:
The compulsive engagement in behaviors that bring short-term reward but long-term destruction.
On a neurological level our reward circuit is part of our “primitive” brain (limbic system) and is called the Nucleus Accumbens (NA). It is here we experience pleasure, whether from healthy or unhealthy activities.
God designed the brain for pleasure, but always through the higher cortex and pathways that heal, ennoble and promote greater development. Healthy activation of our NA occurs after a 5 mile run (runner’s high), when we finally grasp the solution to an intellectual problem, when we apply ourselves to a task and after hard work and discipline succeed, when we experience a healthy love relationship or the birth of our child. Whenever we are in harmony with God’s law of love we are designed to experience pleasure or joy, which simultaneously results in ever more mature and Christlike character.
Addictions (and sin) activate reward pathways directly, without first activating the higher cortex and therefore result in damage to the higher cortex with subsequent increased impulsivity, loss of self-control, greater self-centeredness and destruction of character.
Further, when a person is involved in addictive behaviors, not only are the primitive neural circuits strengthened and the higher cortex weakened, epigenetic gene expression is changed. Such gene expression can occur as quickly as the first use of a chemical substance.
Brain science has demonstrated that as quickly as the first hit of cocaine or methamphetamine a gene in the neurons of the brain, which was previously dormant, activates and begins producing a protein called cocaine-amphetamine-reactive-transcript (CART). This protein, once produced causes increased cravings for more cocaine and amphetamines. If one stops the illegal substance the gene will eventually turn back off and CART will stop being produced. But, if one uses the substance again the gene turns back on and produces significant amounts of CART causing future abstinence to be more difficult to achieve.
We have known for years that the more ancestors one has with addictions the greater the risk of having addiction problems. Why? Because genetic expression changes are passed along to subsequent generations. This is how God designed us to function. We were created with the ability to adapt and change based on our choices and experiences. When we choose unhealthy actions we experience changes to our epigenetic instructions and pass these changes on to our children. God warned that those who hate Him will experience the negative consequences passed down through three and four generations of their family, but those who love Him will experience mercy and love. (Exodus 20:4-6)
When we hate God and engage in sinful behaviors, including addictions, we change ourselves and pass those changes along to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Why? Because those who hate God will not allow Him into their lives to heal what their sin has done. But for those who love Him and open their hearts and minds to His Spirit the Bible promises healing of not only character but brain circuits (body) as well. This would include changes in gene expression.
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”-Romans 8:11
The promise of God is contingent on having no other gods – meaning we must come back to the truth about God. Brain science has shown that when we worship a God of love that our higher cortex grows stronger and the limbic system calms. But all false god concepts activate the limbic system and fail to heal the higher cortex.
Additionally, it is as we come to know and trust God to be as Jesus revealed – a God of genuine love – that we experience the presence of His Spirit which brings a supernatural power to bear in our healing. The converted man begins exercising self-governance and restraint and avoidance of previous destructive behaviors. This results in greater activation of the higher cortex and less activation of the primitive brain. Through this daily experience gene expression will change and over time brain structure will change. If we continue in such a healthy path we can pass along benefits to our children and through a trust relationship with God break the cascade of heritable consequences passed along by our ancestors.
What an amazing God we serve!
 Kelz, Max B., et al. “Expression of the transcription factor FosB in the brain controls sensitivity to cocaine.” Nature 401, 272 – 276 (16 Sep. 1999) DOI: 10.1038/45790.
Like what you read? Come hear more from Dr. Tim Jennings as he joins us as a plenary speaker at the Fall 2016 Church and Mental Health Summit. This incredible event will be held at Calvary Church in Naperville, IL on November 3-5th, 2016. Come listen, learn, and fellowship with other professionals and experts. The Church and Mental Health 2016 Summit is one that you do not want to miss! Visit www.cmhcsummit.com to learn more!
Timothy R. Jennings, M.D., is a Christian psychiatrist, master psychopharmacologist, author, international speaker, radio personality, President-Elect of the Tennessee Psychiatric Association, adjunct faculty at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Chairman Board of Regents Southern Psychiatric Association, and has a private practice in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dr. Jennings obtained his M.D. degree in 1990 from the University of Tennessee, College of Medicine in Memphis and completed psychiatric residency at D.D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia. He is board certified in psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and is licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee, Georgia and Washington. Dr. Jennings was named one of America’s Top Psychiatrists by the Consumer Research Institute of America in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Many of Dr. Jennings’ lectures and written material can be found on his Web site, www.comeandreason.com.