Psychoactive happiness: Neurotransmitters for smiles and therapy
It was C.S Lewis that once remarked: ‘As soon as you deal with sex explicitly, you are forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class’. The same is true when one is dealing explicitly with psychoactives and their subsequent effects. With the possible replacement of the nursery class with poetry, the discourse of psychoactives is via slang, science or poetry. In his 1963 essay ‘Literature & Science’, Aldous Huxley rather verbosely makes the point that within scientific language each sentence has, or needs, one very specific, definitive meaning. However literature and slang are free to cast ambiguities around as if they were raindrops failing in a pond. As the raindrop breaks the surface tension of the water ripples occur, and within these ripples we find our own meanings for things such as metaphors and analogies.
The ultimate reason for a large amount of drug trips is happiness, or the pursuit of it anyway (one must count themselves terribly unlucky if such a state of being hasn’t been reasonably attained during the use of psychoactives). And happiness is one of the blanket terms upon which literature and science collide rather forcedly. Reductive thought patterns, as found within science, can pierce the heart of a mechanistic view much more rapidly than a more poetic approach. For example, Schopenhauer stated that a natural state of being is suffering, and happiness could be thought of as a mere reduction in this natural order of woe. The corollary to this is that Schopenhauer believed that happiness was, at best, pessimistic, or at worst, a complete illusion. As an analogy quite interesting, but from a neuroscientific perspective it tells us little.
Equally as difficult to swallow for some is the answer from biology, which cuts straight to the chase with little room for romantic reflection. It states that happiness is simply how our brains react to one, or a combination of, the four main neurotransmitters associated with the feelings we broadly call ‘happiness’. These four neurotransmitters are; endorphins, which are involved within pain regulation during the ‘flight or fight’ response; serotonin, which is mostly linked to the gastro-intestinal tract and promotes feelings of contentment whilst feeding. Serotonin also affects memory, learning, moods, sleeping and arousal; oxytocin is related to sexual happiness (arousal & orgasm), group trust/empathy and cooperation; finally there is dopamine, which is involved within the brain’s ‘reward circuit’ (that well run pathway of cocaine addicts). Dopamine release is the standard action of most psychoactive substances, and it isn’t too trite to say that, if any chemical is happiness, it’s this particular one.
However new research compiled in the October edition of Advances Neuroimmune Biology is suggesting that dopamine is actually being created and released by the white blood cells (WBCs) during their war, as part of the immune system, against foreign intruders within our bodies. It seems to suggest that dopamine plays the role of a well informed propaganda pamphleteer during civil unrest. Information being processed by the ‘intelligentsia’ (within our bodies, the central nervous system or CNS) is being subsumed into the ‘workforce’ (the WBCs) by the way of dopamine. When we see ants acting as one ‘super organism’ and are suitably moved to become jealous of their determination, one needs to remember that this is how our CNS controls every process within our bodies. In effect it has been discovered that dopamine, whilst being part of the endocrine system (whereby chemicals are released ‘wholesale’ into our bloodstream via glands) is also fundamentally linked to the more specific signalling systems, known as the paracrine and the autocrine. In other words, we are seeing how a self-replicating organism is able to solve problems unconsciously, at a level of detail that leading professors in the neurobiological field are only now beginning to comprehend. This is all occurring despite the level of intelligence that the particular person in charge of the body possesses. We are all earth-shattering biochemists, completely unconsciously.
The CNS creates specific blueprints for specific threats, and dopamine is the messenger boy. The new information regarding the fact WBCs can manufacture the specific dopamine ‘blueprints’ themselves allows for a reciprocal exchange of information between the immune system and the CNS, and thus modifications can be accordingly made in the response to threat. This means, in terms of dopaminergic treatment of mental and neurological disorders, these findings could allow the design of specific target drugs for highly specific problems, instead of relying on the ‘blanket’ treatment of the past. If the immune system can be ‘educated’ into helping, instead of hindering a patient (as in Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), or, as in the case of schizophrenia, to act on rebuilding the damaged pathways of the limbic system within the brain, then a whole new plethora of hopes and dreams are on the horizon for sufferers of degenerative diseases, depression and schizophrenia.
T.S Eliot once wrote, in a letter of November 13, 1860: ‘The intense happiness of our union is derived in a high degree from the perfect freedom with which we each follow and declare our own impressions’. The freedom of our immune system to defend us from illness by keeping us stimulated and amused—so keep the happiness rolling in as it fuels a biochemical arms race, between the immune system and foreign invaders, of Mandelbrot set-type complexity.