NEWS
10/06/2011 05:21 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

My brain on drugs: Neuroscientist describes his life of addiction in new memoir

TORONTO - Neuroscientist Marc Lewis describes his new book as a "weird fusion between life and science."

It's a psychedelic romp through the late '60s and the '70s that includes his coming-of-age experimentation with alcohol and cough syrup at a New England boarding school, and his university "daze" at Berkeley, Calif., where he tripped on LSD and survived a heroin overdose.

Later, his misadventures included stealing methamphetamines from a hospital in Malaysia where his physician father worked and getting busted after break-ins while looking for drugs during his tenure as an intern at Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Now 60, and off drugs for three decades, Lewis confesses that while writing, he was afraid at times about what readers would think of him.

"Oh my God, is my aunt going to read this? I hope she doesn't," the bearded, greying Lewis — a picture of respectability — said during an interview at his publisher's office.

"It's a bit gory," the Toronto native said of his finished product, entitled "Memoirs of an Addicted Brain," published by Doubleday Canada.

"Those feelings of embarrassment, shame and self-exposure are pretty much in decline right now. I feel like the story had to be told. I told it. I talked about it the best way I could."

He said he's a different person now and it's nice to be able to share "the redemptive aspect — that people can change."

The book is a departure from other personal reflections about drug use in that era because it's laced with descriptions of brain activity written by the scientist the addict later became — an expert in cognitive and emotional development.

Now retired from the University of Toronto, Lewis works part-time as a professor at a university in the Netherlands, where he and his wife, also a professor, are raising their five-year-old twin boys.

Details of his earlier life are vividly described in the book, thanks to what he calls a happy accident — the fact that he was in the habit of keeping journals and was an avid recorder of information.

"I would sometimes write when I was on drugs, sometimes when I was off, and then when things got bad, I would try to use the journals as a way to kind of talk myself out of it, or pep talk myself to stop, and how to find ways to stop that were difficult to access."

Altogether, he had about 20 journals of about 200 pages each, and he went through them page by page as he was writing the book.

For him, the combination of life experience and science in the book brings to mind the movie "Fantastic Voyage," in which doctors on a miniaturized submarine traversed blood vessels in a human body in a bid to save a scientist who had defected from behind the Iron Curtain.

Lewis said there's a lot of action in the brain, and it's "kind of dramatic" when drugs kick in.

His drugs of choice, he recalled, were "definitely opiates."

"People who take opiates like heroin, morphine, opium, whatever — they're looking for a different kind of feeling. They might be looking for a feeling of warmth, safety, comfort, whereas meth users are looking for a feeling of power, excitement, dominance," he explained.

"So they're affecting different brain systems, but you take them for what they give you. They're all very attractive to the people who take them otherwise they wouldn't get addicted to them."

Neuroscientists are starting to understand that craving is a big part of drug addiction, he said.

"There are a few systems that are dedicated to pursuing goals and those systems are connected up to nearby systems that are in charge of making meaning so there's a kind of forward thrust: 'I want this, I'm going after it,' and then, 'It's meaningful. It's what I want. It's what I value.'"

"The more value you attach the more you go after it. The more you go after it, the more value you attach — and it's a cycle, and when you go through that a few hundred times you are growing a network of connections between brain cells that becomes consolidated.... And that's really what addiction is."

In Lewis's case, beating his addiction came down to "a lot of resolve."

"There was also a kind of a tipping point when the disgust and aversion and horror of the thing just overwhelmed the sense of attraction, you know, it's like 'I can't do this anymore it's killing me. It's just too awful.'"

Occasionally, he has to take painkillers now, but he is careful to stop as soon as he doesn't need them any longer.

"The same circuits are still there and they become activated if I take that kind of drug, but it's really a shadow of what it was a long time ago. It doesn't take me to the same desperate places and it's not that hard to stop."