Addiction, the Brain, and the Jewel Wasp

One of the common themes I hear from addicts is how they experience their mind as hijacked. They are on their way to obtain drugs and the whole time they are telling themselves “Turn around!!! This is crazy!!! I can’t do this!!!” But their body is under the control of something other than themselves. I have also heard this from people who are addicted to behaviors other than just drug use, such as eating disorders or gambling. How can someone be a prisoner in their own body, watching in horror as they engage in behaviors that are abhorrent to them? To understand this let’s shift gears and look at the jewel wasp.

The jewel wasp is a colorful and even beautiful creature. Barely 1 inch long and iridescent it might almost be a fairy out of legend. However its beauty conceals an unbelievable ghoulishness. It uses a sophisticated venom to turn cockroaches into zombies so they will act as willing food for their larva.

When a jewel wasp spies a cockroach it must attack swiftly as the roach will attempt to flee.  If the attack is successful the jewel wasp will sting the roach once in the thorax. This first sting injects  venom into the roach’s peripheral nervous system that paralyzes the roach’s leg muscles. Now, still terrified but unable to move, the roach is powerless to fight back or flee. While the roach is immobile the wasp inserts its stinger deep into the roach’s brain, using sensors on the tip of its stinger to search until it finds two particular sites. When it finds these it injects another dose of venom. Among other things the venom causes an intense surge of dopamine in the roach’s brain. This surge of dopamine is the same neurochemical change that all addictive substances cause. Does the roach experience a euphoria, a final high? No one knows. But the result is profound. The roach becomes passive. The first venom, the one that paralyzed the roach, soon wears off and the roach can now move, but it does not want to. It just sits there, comfortably tolerating the presence of the jewel wasp.

The wasp knows that that the roach is now its slave, not imprisoned in physical bonds but with its brain hijacked by the venom.  The wasp flies off and builds a small tunnel nearby. The tunnel will be a nursery for the wasp’s baby and a tomb for the cockroach. Having completed the excavation the jewel wasp flies back to the roach. A normal roach would flee, and this roach has the ability to do so, but it doesn’t. It passively awaits the wasp’s approach. The wasps grasps the roach’s antennae and manipulates them so that the roach follows it compliantly. Is the roach following the wasp hoping for another fix, another burst of ecstasy? If so, that never comes. Instead the wasp leads it down the tunnel it has prepared, lays an egg on the roach’s abdomen, and crawls out of the tunnel, sealing the entrance of the tunnel behind it. The roach is still alive but is trapped in its passive state and so makes no move to escape. Soon the wasp’s egg hatches and the larva devours the roach over the next few days. The roach remains alive until the end of the process. The larva then pupates and another jewel wasp emerges from the tunnel to continue the cycle.

This is the disease of addiction. The mind is hijacked by substances or behaviors that create neurochemical changes in the midbrain,  similar to what the wasp’s venom does.   With the same precision as the wasp’s stinger they trigger neurochemical changes in the midbrain and wreak their deadly effect.

An interesting difference between cockroaches and humans is that while the roach will attempt to flee or fight the jewel wasp until it is paralyzed by the first sting, humans will actively seek out addictive substances and embellish them with all sorts of attractive accoutrements. Instead of seeing the addictive behavior for what it is, a deadly parasite, we glamorize it.

Fortunately, our brain has more resistance to the venom of addiction than that of the cockroach for the venom of the jewel wasp. However, we should not ignore the risk. Very few people start using a substance or a behavior with the intention of becoming addicted to it. The story of the jewel wasp can help us see through society’s glamorization of addictive substances and behaviors and treat them with the caution they deserve.


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