The Brain and Addiction
Substances that are addictive will physically change the brains chemical makeup over some time. Once an addiction develops, a change in the brain occurs which causes users to put their drug of choice over anything else.
Changes in the brain from addictive substances
Once a person develops an addiction to drugs or alcohol, their brain is rewired to need drugs or alcohol regardless of consequence.
Even though physical symptoms from an addiction will go away over time, emotions and situations related to a past addiction experience can trigger cravings years after a person has quit using drugs and alcohol.
However, recovery from active addiction is possible. People seeking recovery or in recovery need to understand that maintenance of their addiction is an ongoing matter. The treatment of addiction is an ongoing thing, and it’s vastly improved over the last few years. If you’re struggling with addiction or you know someone that needs help, let us help you.
How does an addiction develop?
The human brain is a marvelously complex organ which controls every action the body makes. Our brain controls basic motor functions, heart beating and breathing rates, emotional response and out decision-making abilities.
Believe it or not, there is an area in the brain responsible for the response of addiction. The limbic system is the main area that controls addictive traits. The limbic system is also known as “the reward system” it’s responsible for the brains feelings of pleasure.
Once a person ingests a drug or a drink, the brains limbic system releases chemicals that make the user feel a euphoria. The “feel good” euphoric states makes the user want the feeling more and more, turning into a habit or addiction.
Once the brain is accustomed to the drug, it develops a need to use it on a regular basis, regardless of harm. Addiction is due to the actual changes that occur in the brains “reward system”. Feeding the addiction becomes paramount to all other things.
The activation of the Brains “Reward System”
Addictive substance abuse activates the brains reward system. The repetitive activation of this system from an unnatural chemical can lead to the addiction to that chemical.
The reward system in the brain will naturally activate when we take part in endorphin producing actions. It’s part of the human instincts that allow us as humans to overcome and adapt to survive. Whatever it is that activates this system, the brain will perceive something necessary is happening for the human survival. The brain then rewards that behavior by producing feelings of contentment and pleasure.
A regular coffee drinker for example, will not feel complete until they have had their coffee in the morning, because they have it so regularly. Addictive substance will take over the body just like this example, which make them more harmful. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol have a far more stronger effect than coffee.
Addiction and its Biochemistry
Dopamine is produced by dopamine which is typically a natural chemical produced by the brains reward system. Dopamine is a natural chemical produced within the brain that effects the limbic system. When it’s introduced to the limbic system, drugs or alcohol will overproduce the chemical which in turn leaves the brain wanting more and not able to compete with its natural production.
Some of the normal activities that produce the dopamine chemical are things like food, sex, physical fitness, etc. don’t typically overproduce the “feel good” chemical dopamine because the body is used to these activities producing it naturally.
Drugs and alcohol can typically cause the brain to produce 10 times the amount of dopamine typically produced.
Drugs and alcohol flood the brains neuroreceptors with dopamine. This is responsible for the “high” produced by using drugs and alcohol. After continued use the brain doesn’t have the ability to naturally produce normal levels of dopamine and the drugs hold the reward system hostage.
Finally, cravings are the result of repetitive use of the drugs or alcohol to get the “feel good” feelings back and feel normal. The abuser or the addict is no longer able to feel normal without the ingestion of the drug or alcohol.
Neurofeedback treatment for addiction
One method of treatment is neurofeedback. It is also called Electroencephalogram (EEG) for Biofeedback. Neurofeedback is a brain training process that helps the brain function more adequately. During the biofeedback process, the administrator of the therapy monitors brain activity by applying sensors to the heads scalp. The administrator will then reward the brain for the changes in its own activity to healthier patterns.
Neurofeedback aids in targeting the underlying issues that trigger addiction like:
The idea is to reteach the brain how to effectively deal with these symptoms without the use of drugs and alcohol. Neurofeedback has proven to be a successful treatment for addiction, for many people. Many rehab centers offer neurofeedback as part of their comprehensive treatment plans. If you’re interested in this type of treatment call Bright Futures to assist you.
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- American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
- Ruiz, P., & Strain, E. (2011) Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, Fifth Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2007). Science of Addiction. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
About the Writer, Peter D.
Peter Dimaira is the online researcher and writer for Bright Futures Recovery Center. Peter has years of experience in journalism and joined the Bright Futures team to spread awareness about addiction, alcoholism and provide better resources on the treatment of drugs and alcohol.