Sensitisation and Addiction Explained
The human body is always in contact with various substances that may be harmful or useful. As a result, mechanisms have developed to adapt to change. Changes can include heat, the chemical composition of the body or pain.
Each change causes the body to react with a response. For instance, repeated drug use may make the body adapt to the effects the drugs produce and develop resistance towards them.
However, the opposite effect can happen — repeated use of a drug can cause an increase its effects on the user. This is known as sensitisation.
What Is Sensitisation?
Sensitisation is the ability to react to sensory inputs such as a smell, pain or sound. It can occur when a person develops a response to a group of stimuli after repeated administration of one stimulus from the group. If the person comes across any stimulus from the group, the response will be the same for all.
Sensitisation is a learning process whereby events may not be associated with one another and can be referred to as non-associative learning. It can occur when organisms are exposed to beneficial or harmful stimuli.
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Types of Sensitisation
Allergic sensitisation is useful in the treatment and diagnosis of respiratory allergies. The tests done for allergic sensitisation involve placing allergens on the skin and looking for a reaction to reveal an allergen-specific Immunoglobulin E.
Long-term potentiation (LTP) is the strengthening of the synaptic signals as a result of the chemical or electrical stimulation of the hippocampus of an organism. The hippocampus is the memory centre of the brain, and the LTP receptors present can be stimulated to learn new things and enhance memory.
Kindling is a type of sensitisation that involves repeated stimulation of neurons in the hippocampus. This type of stimulation is dangerous since a small amount of stimulus can cause excessive reactions like epileptic seizures.
Drug sensitisation occurs when a user experiences increased effects of a drug after repeated doses and becomes dependent on the substance. This is caused by changes taking place in the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine transmission.
Cross-sensitisation occurs when the body becomes sensitive to substances that are similar in structure or chemical nature to the stimuli the body is already sensitive to.
Role of Sensitisation in Addiction
Sensitisation may aggravate drug addiction when the stimuli associated with drug-taking cause cravings. The repeated exposure to drug use causes hypersensitivity to drugs and other stimuli associated with the substance. This hypersensitivity in turn causes an increased craving for drugs and is what causes an exaggerated love of drugs.
Cross-sensitisation can also cause increased drug use. For instance, sensitisation to the motor-activating effects of one stimulant can sensitize the body to the locomotor effects of other stimulants.
Incentive sensitisation occurs during the first few exposures to drugs. This is the first step in the addiction process.
Full drug addiction occurs after incentive sensitisation whereby there is no control of the amount of drug intake. Once detoxification occurs during the treatment process, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms may disappear and uncover sensitisation that could lead to a relapse.
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