Is there something magical about drugs and alcohol with us humans? So what's our fascination and why do some of us like them so much?! Actually, before we try and answer that one, let me just say: we are not alone. Some of the drugs we use, abuse, and become addicted to today were actually "discovered" by animals first.
For example, you know why we have coffee today? Well, the "legend of the dancing goats" says that coffee beans were first discovered in a field in Ethiopia by a goat herder who noticed that his goats were acting weird sometimes, running around and dancing wildly. He couldn't figure out why and so decided to study them. He saw them eating small red berries on a certain shrub found in the area—turns out they were coffee plants. After eating the berries with the coffee beans inside, the goats started their "dancing." Legend also has it that the goat herder also started eating the berries and dancing with them!
Plenty of similar stories and observations have been made of other animals that seem to get "high" from naturally occurring drugs or fermented fruits. Cats are attracted to the valerian plant and to catnip, which seems to give them extreme pleasure. In parts of Africa, the marula fruit ripens, and animals—from monkeys to elephants—are attracted to the overripe and fermenting fruits that make them act "funny." Birds have been seen sitting on smoking tree trunks after bush fires and seem to be intoxicated—they get dizzy and fall off of the smoldering trunk only to get up and do it over and over.
Back to our question…so why do we (or at least some of us) and our animal counterparts like these natural-occurring substances and synthetic or man-made drugs? The answer is simple…blame it on our brains! We have evolved a brain that allows us to see, hear, taste, move, think, etc., and also to repeat things that feel good. That happens because a part of our brain sends out feel-good signals when we do something we enjoy, like eating good food, playing a video game, kicking a goal in soccer, listening to our favorite music, or going upside-down on a roller coaster. The system that says to us: "hey, that was good, do it again!" is called the "reward system".
Turns out that alcohol and drugs affect this system really well; they are effective at going right to our brain's "reward system" and putting it into high gear. This very effective stimulation of the reward system is why many people can become addicted to drugs, since feeling good is what drives much of our behavior. Drugs, in a sense, trick the system that has evolved for helping us in our world and instead can turn our world upside down.
As a scientist and Division Director at NIDA, I am committed to learning more about how drugs exert their effects in the brain so that we can come up with better ways to prevent young people from getting "tricked" by drugs and sliding into addiction without even realizing it.
As Director of NIDA's Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, Dr. Joe Frascella heads up a program that supports studies in humans to advance our understanding of brain and behavior in drug abuse and addiction. Studies are mainly on neuroscience, adolescent development, and treatment, with a goal of translating research results into real-world use.