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How Does Addiction Change The Brain

As concerned parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues, we all wonder – why are they choosing substances over us? What did we do wrong?

The answer is not so simple. In fact, substance use disorder is a brain condition. But, how does addiction change the brain?

In 2021, over 60,000 Floridians were receiving treatment for a substance use disorder. At Clean Recovery Centers, we understand the need for treatment options and are proud to serve our Gulf Coast communities. Our goal is to offer free educational tools for families and loved ones concerned about substance use disorders. Today, we are discussing how substance use disorders change the brain, and the surprising effects thereafter.

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The Biochemistry of Addiction

Substance use has been around for centuries and in that time there have been countless studies and research projects surrounding addiction. In recent years, as substance use disorders have grown in prominence, more studies have been conducted to figure out why a person becomes dependent on a substance. Is it genetic? Is it the environment?

The truth is that yes, genetics and environmental situations are components of developing a substance use disorder. However, the number one cause of addiction comes from the brain’s neurochemistry. All substances affect the brain in some way, and by altering chemical production and systems, the brain physically changes to conform to the substance.

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Rewarding the Brain: How Substance Use Disorders Develop

Think about how you feel after eating a cheeseburger you have been craving for days. Or how you feel waking up after a restful, uninterrupted sleep. These things make us feel good, but why? The brain has its own reward system, and as silly as it sounds, it is there to keep us alive. The brain triggers the reward chemical dopamine to be released after eating, sleeping, and having sex. These are basic human behaviors cultivated through nature, which is why the brain has this system. Because we are human, other enjoyable experiences can release dopamine as well, such as exercise or listening to our favorite music. Dopamine reinforces our joy behind these activities.

When substances enter the picture, the reward system is the main area affected. All illicit substances have some effect on dopamine in the brain. Alcohol is a part of this category also. Even prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and other medications can affect the dopamine response, but when taken as prescribed, they won’t cause long-term dopamine changes.

Dopamine Receptors Role in Substance Use Disorders

We mentioned the reward system and the chemical dopamine, but what is the connection to substance use disorders? The way that cocaine, opioids, benzodiazepines, etc. work is by creating a flood of dopamine within the brain. According to studies, this rush is 10 times more than the natural response. As dopamine takes over the brain, it starts binding to dopamine receptors. These receptors are located throughout the central nervous system, particularly in the hippocampal dentate gyrus and subventricular zone of the brain. As dopamine binds to these receptors, different functions become affected such as memory, impulse control, decision-making, and more.

However, these impairments are not noticed right away because of the rush of euphoria. The brain begins to associate the substance as a reward, disrupting the normal, natural reward cycle. Eating and sleeping no longer bring that sense of fulfillment. The brain essentially shuts off the natural reward cycle, leaving substances to be the only thing that will activate it.

How Substance Use Disorders Affect the Brain

When the brain turns off the reward cycle for substances, the person will find it very difficult to achieve a sense of happiness. The substance becomes the only way to fix it, but over time they need to take more as they build tolerance. This is where cravings come from – it is not necessarily that they crave the substance, they crave the way it makes their brain and body feel. It becomes increasingly difficult to achieve those feelings as tolerance increases, as tolerance is a result of the brain adjusting to the high levels of dopamine. The brain will make fewer dopamine receptors and increase the threshold of the dopamine response. The only way the person knows how to fix this is to keep taking more and more of their desired substance. But in the long term, the brain will begin to undergo changes.

Long-Term Brain Changes From Addiction

The brain is a complex structure and is responsible for everything within our bodies. As substance use continues, long-term complications and changes will occur. When you stop using a substance, the brain is thrown into the chaos of figuring out how to regulate chemical responses, specifically dopamine. Depending on how long and what substance you were taking, it can take months to start to feel a sense of normal again. For example, a study conducted on rats showed that rats taking a dose of cocaine every other day for 30 days had a longer recovery of the dopamine system – close to 90 days. Opioids and other substances also take time to rebuild the dopamine reward system.

Parts of the Brain Impacted by Substance Use

Though all substances affect the brain, some can cause more damage than others. Alcohol has been proven through MRI studies to cause brain damage that can be permanent. Both white matter volume and gray matter structures have shown deficits from chronic alcohol use disorder. Areas of the brain affected include the hypothalamus, thalamus, cerebellum, and frontal lobes. Memory, speech, movement, and behavioral reactions can all be affected. When intervention happens early, the brain can heal from certain damage. However, if drinking continues, the brain cannot repair what has been damaged. A condition known as wet brain syndrome is an example of this – the first stage is called Wernicke encephalopathy, and it is treatable. But once the condition progresses to the second stage – called Korsakoff syndrome – there is no way to cure the brain.

Methamphetamines are another substance that has been shown to cause damage to the brain. MRIs have shown varied amounts of cerebral deterioration. This contributes to impaired memory and is permanent in most cases. Other areas of the brain also showed impairment linked to decision-making.

The Brain and Withdrawal: How Are They Related?

Because the brain has completely adjusted to the substance, what happens when you stop taking it? Our bodies are made to signal for basic needs. When you are hungry, your stomach growls or if you are dehydrated, your mouth will get dry. Those signals are coming from the brain, and withdrawal is the signal for needing the substance. Feeling sick, depressed, anxious, and soreness are all triggered by the brain.

Healing the Brain Through Addiction Treatment in Tampa, FL

Substance use disorder is not the result of poor decision-making or any other stigmatized scenario – it is first and foremost a brain condition and mental health disorder. What makes that great is that the condition is treatable and recovery is possible. Finding an addiction treatment program is the first step to taking back control and healing your mind. You are human – you have thoughts, goals, and passions. It’s not too late to begin, you can be free again.

Healing the brain and body won’t be easy, but you will have support every step of the way. At Clean Recovery Centers, we specialize in treating every aspect of addiction: physical, spiritual, social, and mental. Our unique, three-phase approach to treatment is unlike any in the Suncoast area, and gives you the tools you need to live a fulfilling life in recovery. Call us today at (888) 330-2532 to learn more about our program.

Get clean. Live clean. Stay clean.

FAQs About Addiction and the Brain

How does behavioral addiction affect the brain?

Behavioral addictions such as gambling or sex work almost in the same way as substance use disorders. The dopamine system is triggered by a behavior that results in a reward. With gambling, the behavior is betting on a horse race and the reward is winning. The brain reacts the same as if taking a substance, by releasing dopamine. This can result in becoming addicted to the behavior, and even when a negative consequence happens, the brain remembers the good feeling of winning and seeks it.

Can brain damage from drug addiction be reversed?

If the damage is caught in time it is possible to heal, but this is not always the case. If substance use goes on for a long period, it is possible for the damage to be irreversible.

Can drug addiction cause mental illness?

Yes, drug addiction can cause mental illnesses to form. Depression and anxiety are the most common conditions.

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