Addiction and the Brain
Addictive substances physically change the brain over time. When an addiction occurs, changes in the brain cause users to prioritize drug use over all else.
Addictive Substances and Changes in the Brain
When someone develops an addiction, his or her brain becomes rewired to use drugs despite the negative consequences.
Even though the physical symptoms of an addiction will go away, situations or emotions related to past substance abuse can trigger cravings years down the road.
This doesn’t mean recovery isn’t possible. People in recovery must realize treatment is an ongoing process. Addiction treatment is evolving every day and has rapidly improved over the years. If you or someone you care about is struggling to overcome an addiction, get help now.
How Addictions Develop
The human brain is a complex organ that controls every voluntary and involuntary action we make. The brain controls everything from basic motor skills, heart and breathing rates, emotions, behavior, and decision-making.
There is even a part of the brain responsible for addiction. The name for this part of the brain is the limbic system. The limbic system, also known as the “brain reward system,” is responsible for producing feelings of pleasure.
When a person takes an addictive substance, the limbic system releases the chemical dopamine that makes the user feel good. This pleasurable feeling associated with drug use becomes habitual.
The overwhelming, involuntary need to use a substance, regardless of the harm it may cause, is due to the changes that have occurred in the brain reward system. Feeding the addiction becomes the top priority.
Activating the Brain Reward System
The brain reward system is naturally activated when we take part in actions that bring us pleasure. It is part of our natural ability to adapt and survive. Whenever something activates this system, the brain assumes something necessary to survival is happening. The brain rewards that behavior by creating feelings of pleasure.
Drinking water when we are thirsty, for example, activates the reward system, so we repeat this behavior. Addictive substances hijack the limbic system, causing feelings of pleasure for actions that are actually harmful. Addictive substances, unfortunately, have a far stronger effect on the brain reward system. The frequent activation of the limbic system with drugs leads to addiction.
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The Biochemistry of Addiction
Dopamine plays an important role in the reward system. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that sends signals to the limbic system. When introduced into the limbic system, drugs can either mimic dopamine or cause an overproduction of it in the brain.
The reason normal actions that activate the brain reward system (food, drinking, sex, music, etc.) don’t reprogram the brain for addiction is because they maintain normal levels of dopamine.
Addictive substances can release up to 10 times more dopamine than natural reward behaviors.
Substance use floods neurotransmitters with dopamine. This causes the “high” associated with using drugs. After continued drug abuse, the human brain is unable to naturally produce normal levels of dopamine. Basically, drugs take the reward system hostage.
The result is craving the drugs that will restore dopamine levels to normal. Individuals in this scenario is no longer capable of feeling good without the drug.
Neurofeedback in Addiction
One addiction treatment method gaining traction is neurofeedback. It is also called Electroencephalogram (EEG) Biofeedback. Neurofeedback is a training process that helps the brain learn to function better. During this process, the administrator of the therapy monitors brain activity by applying sensors to the scalp. The administrator rewards the brain for changing its own activity to better, healthier patterns.
By retraining the brain how to live without drugs, neurofeedback has proven to be a successful addiction treatment. Some treatment centers offer neurofeedback as part of a comprehensive recovery plan. Call us now to get in touch with a treatment center that can help you.