Is Suboxone Addictive?

Drug addiction is a complex process that involves both a physical dependency and a psychological component. The most addictive drugs produce a dual effect, both on your body and in your mind, that encourage you to continue abusing the drug. Buprenorphine, a drug found within Suboxone, is an opioid drug that has an addictive quality and can potentially be abused. To understand why a drug is a addictive, you must first understand the certain parts of the brain and how they function.

The Limbic System

The brain is a exceedingly intricate organ that performs millions of functions. When it comes to discussing drug use, physicians focus on the limbic system. The limbic system consists of a pair of structures – the hippcampus and the fornix – found deep within the central area of the brain. This area of the brain is responsible for at least two major functions.

  • Controls Emotion. The limbic system allows us to perceive and then express both negative and positive emotions. Damage or interference with the limbic system produces irrational changes in mood and behavior.
  • Reward Circuit. Limbic structures connect all the parts of the brain concerned with regulating the sensation of pleasure. When this circuit is activated, pleasure is experienced. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that this reaction positively reinforces whatever action was done to activate the reward circuit. For example, eating activates the reward center, so humans will continue to eat – a requirement for survival.

The pleasure center of the brain is controlled by the release and function of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. As dopamine levels increase within the limbic system, the more the reward center is activated. Therefore, high dopamine levels lead to more intense pleasure.

How Suboxone Affects the Brain

Suboxone is considered an opiate drug because of its active ingredient buprenorphine. Opiates are able to enter the brain and directly bind to receptors within the limbic system. The exact mechanism is not well understood, but the overall effect is that when the opiate binds to its receptors, more dopamine is released into the system. One theory is that opiates decrease the levels of another neurotransmitter called GABA which normally inhibits dopamine release. So when an opiate inhibits GABA levels, it indirectly enhances dopamine levels. This kind of reaction is called disinhibition.

No matter the underlying mechanism, the overall effect is that the patient will experience a temporary increase in pleasure. Theoretically, this will alleviate some of the negative psychological effects associated with detoxification.

When Does Suboxone Become Addictive?

Chronic abuse of Suboxone (e.g., snorting the drug or taking high doses) can cause the addict’s brain to become dependent on the drug. The brain has become accustomed to high levels of dopamine. Therefore, the pleasure center is only activated when there are high levels of the neurotransmitter. Without Suboxone or another opiate, the reward center does not activate and the patient is unable to feel normal pleasure. This is why some addicts do not find pleasure through eating, playing sports or other fun activities they used to enjoy.

Once your brain has adjusted to your use of Suboxone, you become physically dependent on the drug. You need the drug to experience pleasure. This is the foundation for addiction.