The brain of a person with an addiction to drugs or alcohol is different than someone without a substance use disorder. Researchers have been working for decades to understand addiction. Understanding how people use substances is helping pave the way for more effective treatments and more empathy for this brain disorder.
Below, we discuss how an addict’s brain functions and its implications.
Understanding Your Brain
The brain is what makes us who we are. Our brains allow us to move, think, feel and speak.
The gray and white matter is like our control center, and even when we’re sleeping, it’s always working. Information from the environment around you finds its way to your brain. Your brain receives that information processes it, and integrates it. The results of this processing and integration include survival and functioning under various changing situations.
You can also learn from experience, thanks to the work of your brain.
The parts of an addict’s brain work together, but each has its function and role.
With drugs and alcohol, there’s interference with normal tasks the parts of the brain carries out. Eventually, drug and alcohol exposure can change how well the brain works.
Addiction can develop, which is a brain disease. Addiction means you can’t stop using drugs or alcohol even if you want to. The effects of this brain disease are far-reaching and impact every part of an affected person’s life.
The three primary areas of your brain substances affect include:
- The brain stem controls all the functions you need to stay alive. The brain stem controls the movement of blood, food digestion, and breathing. The brain stem connects to the spinal cord, which helps you move your arms and muscles. The stem also helps your brain understand what your body is experiencing.
- The limbic system controls our emotional responses, including how we feel pleasure. When we experience pleasurable feelings, our limbic system motivates us to repeat that behavior triggering it.
- The cerebral cortex is the gray matter that makes up most of our brains. The cerebral cortex comprises four lobes that control a range of particular functions.
The Effect of Drugs and Alcohol on the Brain
Drugs are a chemical. When you expose your brain and body to chemicals, it affects your communication system. Drugs can affect how nerve cells send, receive and process information. The chemical structures of drugs and alcohol affect specifically how they influence your brain.
There are two primary ways substances can affect the addict’s brain.
- In the first scenario, drugs and alcohol can imitate your natural chemical messengers in the brain. There’s overstimulation of the brain’s reward circuit in the second situation.
- Heroin and marijuana are examples of drugs that have chemical structures replicating your brain’s natural neurotransmitters.
- These drugs can attach to receptors in the brain and activate them, but they don’t work like natural neurotransmitters.
- The result is neurons that transmit abnormal messengers in the brain and throughout the body.
- Stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine lead nerve cells to release an excess of dopamine.
- Dopamine is a natural brain neurotransmitter. At high levels, it creates abnormal messages in the brain and interferes with communication channels.
The Initial Effects of Drugs
Drugs and alcohol, and even nicotine, activate your reward circuit in the brain. The reward circuit is part of the limbic system.
Your reward circuit will respond to pleasurable or healthy activities through the release of dopamine. Then, your brain learns to repeat the activities.
Drugs hijack the reward system triggering the release of large amounts of dopamine. Initially, the dopamine is released in response to the drug, and then later, in response to other things associated with the drug. For example, being around the people you use the drug with can trigger dopamine release.
These effects make you want to seek the drug continuously. You’re highly motivated to keep using it, and the dopamine release reinforces your desire to keep using, which is when addiction develops.
The Disease of Addiction
When an addiction forms, it is a chronic disease of the brain.
Like other chronic conditions, there isn’t a cure for addiction. You can do things to reduce the symptoms and get into remission. In addiction terminology, remission is often known as recovery.
- Addiction is a chronic brain disease because repeated substance exposure changes the brain.
- You are driven at that point to seek and use drugs time and time again, even when doing so creates negative effects.
- In healthy people, there is an ability to control impulses. The impulses are balanced by the circuits of the addict’s brain that help you make decisions and facilitate judgment. These circuits are disrupted when someone has a substance use disorder.
- The disruption of these brain circuits includes a reduced ability to control and manage the impulses you experience.
- It’s difficult for someone with an addiction to exercise self-control. Similarly, there’s a physical dependence that occurs.
- If someone’s dependent on drugs or alcohol, they experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if they cut back or try to stop. Then, they continue to use drugs or alcohol to alleviate that discomfort and the psychological aspects of addiction.
The Genetics of Addiction
At least half of your susceptibility to addiction relates to genetic factors. There are predisposing factors for addiction and the effects of substances on your brain.
These genetic factors explain at least partially why some people become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and others don’t.
There is a lot of work being done to look at the genetics of addiction and what particular things could make someone more vulnerable to a substance use disorder.
The more researchers can understand the complex relationships between the many factors involved in substance abuse and addiction, the more they may be able to work on preventing the development of these conditions eventually. Treatment may become more genetically targeted as a result too.
Some estimates say genetics make up around 75% of your likelihood to start smoking, 60% of your tendency to get addicted, and 54% of whether or not you can successfully quit. These numbers could be similar to the use of other substances.
Can Your Brain Recover from Addiction Damage?
What’s most important to take away from the conversation about addiction and brain function is that recovery is possible. The brain will want to correct the imbalances created from repeated substance use, but you need professional treatment to get to that point.
Your brain has an impressive level of neuroplasticity, which you need to make positive changes.
Researchers find the brain can unlearn addictive behaviors.