Understanding the Neurobiology of Addiction

Understanding the Neurobiology of Addiction

For years, addiction has been viewed as some sort of moral failing or character flaw. Over time, however, research has proven that addiction is actually a physiological process, occurring primarily in the brain. To understand what addiction is and how it works, we need to understand the neurobiology of addiction.

How the Brain Responds to Substances

While various substances create different reactions within the brain, the overall response is to increase the amount of dopamine within what is known as the reward center of our brains, or the limbic center. Typically, dopamine is released when we experience other pleasing activities, such as food or sex. However, substances cause too much dopamine to be released, which can create a sense of euphoria. 

Dopamine is related directly to our behaviors – when dopamine is released, it creates a greater desire for the behavior that caused the release. When we experience pleasure, that motivates us to repeat activities. So, with drugs and alcohol, the brain learns to want the substance more. In fact, because the dopamine levels are artificially so much higher in relation to substance use, our brain prioritizes the seeking of substances ahead of other activities, even over seeking food.

What Happens with Repeat Exposure to Substances

The brain will continue to seek out substances and responds similarly even to cues that are related to substances. For example, if your substance is alcohol and you see an ad for a certain brand of beer or drive by a bar, your brain will actually release dopamine in anticipation of the reward of alcohol. 

Additionally, the more you use a substance, the less euphoria actually happens. This is because the more we use, the more our brain demands and we can actually damage the dopamine release and receptors. In time, we are no longer even capable of feeling “high,” our brains simply demand the substance just to feel “normal.” Addiction occurs like this when our brain becomes dependent upon a substance. 

Why the Brain Demands More

Just like how the reward center of our brain reacts when we experience something related to our survival, such as food, that response also happens when we ingest substances. Except with a greater perceived reward. This is the beginning of our brain being “fooled” into thinking that something is good for us. 

Because the dopamine receptors are motivated by behaviors and vice versa, the seeking of substances becomes a priority. The initial substance use creates an interest, then a need, then an unquenchable appetite for the substance to create that continuous response. Certain drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine release such an overload of dopamine that they are incredibly addictive. But they also have more extreme side effects on the rest of brain function.

How Substance Use Affects the Brain Long-term

The communication in the reward center also alters how the brain communicates and functions in relation to our emotions, the controlling of our movements, and our ability to reason or make decisions. Using substances can actually re-wire our brains, particularly as we prioritize the seeking of substances over other needs and functions.

The substances themselves can also cause physiological changes within the brain, which is why so many functions can be impaired as well. The changes to our brains will depend on the substances we use, how long we use them for, in addition to our own genetics and physical and emotional health. Unlike the previous misconceptions of addiction being some sort of moral weakness or behavioral issues, with functional brain imaging, it is actually possible to see some of the damage caused by extensive substance use.

Can Recovery Reverse Changes to the Brain?

The question of healing from substance use is a delicate one. One answer is that substance use can cause irreversible damage, not only to our brains but also to our bodies. Our physical and mental health can be literally scarred for life.

However, there is another answer to the question. Yes. Sometimes, some of the damage to our brains is reversible in recovery. The brain can be surprisingly resilient, and with improved treatment for addiction which looks at your health holistically – mind, body, and soul – there are cases in which some of the changes to the brain can be reversed. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee one way or the other. Just like the damage itself, there are many factors, such as type of substances used, extent of use, our own health and genetics, etc. 

The only certainty is that without treatment, things will only get worse. As we continue to use substances, the re-wiring of our brain continues and the addiction also becomes more powerful. Physical side effects also grow, particularly as the normal, healthy needs like food, sleep, and exercise are ignored in the seeking of substance use. We know that active addiction can kill us. So why not take the chance that recovery could improve our chances of a healthy mind and body?

We know that addiction is a process that occurs in our brains. We know that it is a physiological response when we partake in substances. That means we also know we are not morally weak, that we have the strength to take our lives back from the addiction. As long as we are still alive, it is not too late to get the help we need. We can rise above the chemical processes happening in our brains and work to become whole again. 

Learn more about how your brain can be healthy again at AToN Center. Call (888) 535-1516 right now to reactivate the normal function in your brain.

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