Gaming and fentanyl: How one addiction may feed into the other

If you’ve ever undergone surgery and had anesthesia, chances are you might have taken fentanyl — a narcotic analgesic that when combined with a sleep agent, helps your body survive the trauma of being opened up.

But fentanyl has a deadly side. It’s largely considered the worst of the worst of addictive opioids that are part of a crisis that’s killing Americans nationwide.

One of its local victims was 35-year-old Brian Vigneault of Virginia Beach, who died in February during a marathon video gaming session. Last week, the Office of the Chief Medical Officer said that the cause of death was a fentanyl overdose.

Though far apart in terms of severity, gaming and opioid addictions can work in the brain in a similar way, said Dr. Peter Coleman, the Medical Director of the Coleman Institute, an addiction treatment center in Richmond.

“There are plenty of people who do marathon gaming sessions, and plenty of people who take fentanyl die from it instantly,” Coleman said.

A 2011 study published in the journal “Comprehensive Psychiatry” showed that the brain circuitry regulating the desire for gaming works in a similar way as that which regulates drug and alcohol addiction.

Engaging in both gaming and drug use releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls pleasure. Food and sex also release dopamine, as does gambling, Coleman said.

And drugs such as opioids release the most dopamine, he added, which is why once people with other addictions start using drugs, their primary addiction becomes the drug.

“The same people vulnerable to [gaming and other addictions] are probably also more vulnerable to chemical dependence,” Coleman said, adding, “Drugs release far more dopamine than the games.”

Vigneault, who went by the name “PoShYbRiD” in the gaming community, was an avid and world-renowned gamer with more than 7,000 followers. When he died, he’d been playing “World of Tanks” for some 24 hours.

Although Coleman could not comment specifically on Vigneault’s case, he said that addictions to Fentanyl come on quickly. In less than three weeks, people can form a physical dependence on the drug.

“Fentanyl goes into the brain really quickly, so it’s a little bit more of a thrill than heroin,” he added. It’s also fifty times more powerful than heroin or morphine.

It only takes a small amount of powder to do a lot of damage, Coleman added. Many times, addicts think they were given heroin instead of fentanyl, so they find themselves inadvertently addicted to fentanyl. “It’s cheaper for drug cartels to make fentanyl than heroin,” he said.

Fentanyl also kills people more quickly, Coleman added. “Fentanyl can stop your breathing in a few seconds, whereas heroin takes an hour to kill you. There’s often a window where people can find you and revive you.”

Both drugs slow down breathing to a stop, he explained.

Unfortunately, most people who become addicted to drugs only find out they are biologically prone to addictions once they have a problem — and for some that might be too late.

In Hampton Roads, fentanyl usage has increased 360 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the Virginia Beach Health Department.

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