Drug Addiction And The Brain

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Addiction is a complicated disease that hijacks the brain and changes the way it is wired. Research has shown this disease can be managed and overcome, and treatment helps significantly with this process.

Drug Addiction And The Brain

Years ago, it was believed that a person who struggled with addiction was without willpower, and if they were a ‘better’ individual, they could manage their addiction. Research has shown that this is absolutely false, that addiction can be treated, and sobriety is an option.

Although it is common knowledge that addiction is linked to bad decisions, cravings, drug and alcohol abuse, and withdrawal symptoms, many people do not understand exactly how addiction affects the brain.

Drug addiction changes the way the brain functions as well as its structure. Over time, when a person continues to abuse drugs or alcohol, the brain becomes used to having the substance, and it causes the brain to depend on these substances to function normally.

Removing these substances once an addiction has developed can result in withdrawal symptoms ranging from uncomfortable to fatal. Understanding how addiction affects the structure and function of the brain can help a person see the nature of this disease, and how to address it.

Drug Addiction

An individual struggling with addiction can appear to change as their addiction progresses. It may seem, at first, that they are happy, excited, and pleasant to be around. They may feel these substances are having a positive effect and continue to use. But as the addiction continues, changes occur.

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Over time, the cravings may result in the person engaging in behaviors that are not characteristic of them. They may start avoiding social settings that they cannot use in or spending a lot of time finding drugs or alcohol. The also may have mood swings, act aggressive, or be easily agitated.

Someone struggling with addiction may also develop problems with relationships and other responsibilities, like work or school. They often find themselves seeking situations, circumstances, and relationships with others that are accepting of substance abuse.

Addiction can lead to drug-seeking behaviors that appear to be compulsive, and avoiding withdrawal may keep a person abusing drugs and alcohol. It is at this point that a person may struggle to stop on their own, and this is due to many of the changes that occur in the brain.

The Brain

The brain is the most complicated organ in the body. It is made up of a delicate interconnection of specially structured cells, called neurons. These neurons communicate with one another using electric and chemical transmissions, that allow a person to move, think, feel, and behave.

Neurons communicate using neurotransmitters that are released in the spaces between them. The most common neurotransmitters are dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), acetylcholine, and glutamate.

These neurotransmitters work together in order to make the brain work smoothly and efficiently. When a person takes drugs, it can change the way that these neurons communicate, especially if these drugs activate dopaminergic neurons.

When specific pathways, or circuits, in the brain are repeatedly activated, they become stronger and become the pathways the brain primarily uses. This can be referred to as learning, or forming a habit. Other cells in the brain are constantly removing other, less often used circuits, making the stronger pathways the only circuit available.

Addiction In The Brain

The brain is very much like a computer: information goes in, is processed, and output is generated. This system functions normally by regulating levels of neurotransmitters throughout the brain. Introducing substances of abuse disrupts normal brain function.

An area of the brain, called the limbic system, is responsible for regulation, pleasure, and reward. More specifically, the nucleus accumbens in the limbic system has been referred to as the “pleasure center” of the brain. The nucleus accumbens releases dopamine when it is activated, and therefore dopamine has been tied to pleasure and reward.

Many addictive drugs cause the nucleus accumbens to become flooded with dopamine. The brain interprets this rush as a reward, and the person experiences euphoria. The brain then also forms memories of this “positive” experience, and other areas create a conditioned response to this substance use.

These responses in the brain are usually how a person experiences rewarding situations, and the brain determines these activities are worth repeating or making into a habit. The ‘high’ of most drugs does not last long, and the brain begins to have cravings for those euphoric feelings.

How Drug Addiction Changes The Brain

Initially, the brain responds to drug and alcohol abuse the same way it responds to any pleasurable experience, with activation of the nucleus accumbens and a release of dopamine. This area of the brain is often referred to as the “pleasure center”.

With continued substance abuse, the brain learns these substances are directly linked to feelings of euphoria and pleasure. The brain then craves these drugs or alcohol to continue feeling the rush associated with substance abuse.

As addiction develops, the brain begins to slow the natural production of the neurotransmitters that are affected by addiction, and in some cases eliminates some receptors. The brain and body then become dependent on the substance of abuse to maintain neurotransmitter levels.

At this level of addiction, the person may feel as though they are not experiencing the same level of intoxication. This is known as tolerance. A person struggling with addiction may try to use more of the substance, or use it in a way that intensifies the ‘high’, like smoking, snorting, or injecting.

Compulsions and cravings also start to occur at this point. The brain actively seeks situations in which the person was using drugs or alcohol in an attempt to recreate and experience the same feelings as before. When a person enters that situation, they also experience intense cravings for the substance.

Dopamine And Addiction

Dopamine plays a significant role in addiction. As mentioned previously, abusing substances results in a flood of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. However, many pathways of the brain rely on dopamine, and all of them are affected by addiction.

It is important to understand how dopamine levels in the brain can affect addiction and recovery. A person struggling with addiction has a brain that is not making enough natural dopamine, and attempting sobriety can result in a number of side effects, some severe.

Abusing high levels of an addictive substance can result in extreme levels of dopamine in the brain. This can lead to hallucinations and delusions, much like schizophrenia symptoms. These high levels of dopamine also tend to be reinforcing and rewarding, leading to continued abuse.

When a person attempts sobriety without detox, dopamine levels can plummet. This can result in tremors and shaking, similar to Parkinson’s Disease. In some cases, like with alcohol and benzos, withdrawal can be fatal.

Addiction does affect other neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin, norepinephrine, glutamate, opioid, and GABA. However, these additional receptors seem to be linked to dopamine, resulting in these surges of dopamine in the brain, reinforcing addiction.

Drug Addiction Treatment

A substance abuse treatment facility that is equipped with a medically supervised detox can help a person struggling with addiction. These detox locations can provide assistance, including medications, to ease the discomfort of withdrawal.

Moving forward, professionals strongly encourage a person to continue on to a substance abuse treatment program to explore the nature of their addiction. These programs also allow an individual to develop strong treatment plans and relapse prevention with the help of addiction treatment specialists.

We are available to help locate a substance abuse treatment facility that meets the unique needs of you or your loved one. Let us assist you in finding available substance abuse treatment options.

Harvard Health Publishing - How Addiction Hijacks The Brain

Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction - Drugs and the Brain

National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens - Brain and Addiction

The Journal of Clinical Investigation - The addicted human brain: insight from images