Could Neuroscience Have Helped Amy Winehouse?

Do roots of the troubled rock star's death lie in brain chemistry?

Posted Jul 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse modeling with alcohol

Amy Winehouse making alcohol look glamorous

"They tried to make me go to rehab," sang Amy Winehouse the troubled rock star  "Rehab." "I said 'No, no no."'  Now she is dead at the age of 27; a death reportedly due to abuse of alcohol and ecstacy, complicated by symptoms of emphysema associated with smoking cigarettes and crack.   In her death, Amy joins the so-called "27 Club," whose members include Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, & Janis Joplin. Her death is an all too familiar cultural legend. A talented, creative risk-taker with the world at her feet throws it all away in search of the next greatest high. Is this a morality tale or just a senseless tragedy? New research suggests it may be a brain problem that science can eventually solve. 

Amy's substance-induced  downhill spiral was rapid and dramatic. In 2010, she developed early signs of emphysema, a horrible lung disease, reportedly  from smoking cigarettes and crack. She canceled a European tour, following a horrible performance in June, in which she repeatedly stumbled onstage in Belgrade  Videotapes of the concert train wreck quickly circulated over the internet. Photos taken around that time show an emaciated Amy with scabs on her face and possible trackmarks on her arms; a virtual caricature of a severe addict.

Celebrities & Addiction

Amy Winehouse - severe alcohol and dug addict

A far less glamorous Amy in recent times

If we are to learn anything from this tragedy, we need to try to understand the connections linking celebrity status to drug and alcohol abuse.  Celebrity brings with it money and opportunity, opening to the door to a lifestyle of partying, novelty-seeking, adoration, and excess. Unfortunately, an inevitable part of this lifestyle are the hangers-on who provide access to drugs, alcohol, and sex in order to be part of the celebrity's inner circle. There is also considerable psychological pressure when sponsors have so much money riding on one person's performance. Rock stars have to be "up" all the time, look the part, and put up with a grueling travel schedule, often without the luxury of being able to have a bad day. Paparazzi lie in wait to capture the photo of a bedraggled or misbehaving idol that is then circulated to the world, so that everybody from Oslo to Omaha can watch and comment.

Certainly these environmental pressures can lead even a strong person to get caught up in a partying lifestyle, overvaluing of the external and the temporary, and a false sense of invulnerability, or its opposite, paranoia. Both the tremendous rewards of success and high price of failure become vulnerability factors for drug and alcohol use. At first celebrities may drink or party to celebrate, later on to perform, then to cope with the shame of public humiliation, and finally, because they cannot get through the day without the substance.

The same personality characteristics that lead people to seek and achieve celebrity status may also pose a risk for addiction. A person who seeks novelty, stimulation, and intense sensations and is willing to take big risks to achieve these states is also more prone to experiment with drugs and alcohol and to become addicted to the "highs," seeking ever-greater and more novel experiences. 

Can Neuroscience Help?

Dopamine centers of the brain - neuroscience

Dopmine receptors in the brain associated with pleasure & reward

Scientists are just beginning to understand the brain pathways associated with addiction. One new discovery is that there are genes which lead dopamine receptors in the brain to become less sensitive. Since dopamine is a brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward, this would lead to a "dulling" of normal pleasure sensations. According to an article by neuroscientist David Linden from Johns Hopkins University Medical School, published in today's New York Times, people with this gene variant require a much more intense experience to feel the same level of pleasure that others feel with everyday indulgences, such as eating a chocolate. Since feelings of pleasure are one of life's greatest rewards, these individuals would "want the feelings of success more than others - but like it less."  As a result, they would be more motivated to seek new experiences, challenge the status quo, and take big risks, potentially resulting in career success and celebrity status, but also in substance abuse.

Therefore, genetic testing may hold the key to preventing destructive addiction in both celebrities and other types of leaders, such as politicians and CEO's. Scientists of the future could invent drugs or identify natural supplements to increase dopamine-related pleasure sensation, making individuals less vulnerable to addiction. Psychologists, in turn, could create cognitive and behavioral programs to "retrain the brain" to experience pleasure from ordinary events.  As humans, we have extraordinary ability both to create huge problems that shorten our lifespans and to solve them.  While Amy may have said "no" to rehab, perhaps the next generation of rock stars will say "yes" to preventive testing and intervention to stop them from suffering her tragic fate.


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