By Jennifer Welsh
What makes you crave a Big Mac when you see the golden arches? Or long for a beer when you see a cold one on TV? A single pathway in the brain is to blame, new research suggests, and putting the brakes on it could stop addicts from relapsing.
The pathway connects the hippocampus, the part of the brain that analyzes and interprets the environment around you (using the contextual information that comes in through your senses, such as seeing a beer on TV) with the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, which processes reward-driven behaviors (such as grabbing a beer from the refrigerator).
Reward-driven behaviors release the brain chemical dopamine. Such behaviors include sex and eating, which are very important in daily life. But some drugs release these dopamine “rewards” at higher levels than natural reactions do, the heart of addiction.