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What Happens to the Brain During Addiction?

Visualization of what happens to the brain during addiction

In 1956, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared that alcoholism was a disease—not a moral failing, weakness, or character defect as so many people previously thought and still may think. In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) officially defined addiction as a chronic disease of motivation, memory, and related circuitry.

Because it is now known that by hijacking the brain to foster compulsive substance abuse, addiction changes a person’s behavior and makes them powerless over their drug of choice, medical science is beginning to make groundbreaking discoveries about the disease that are revolutionizing our understanding of and response to the global drug problem. To learn more, call 888.296.8976 to speak with someone from the knowledgeable team at Northpoint Recovery about addiction’s effects on the brain and other addiction recovery information.

How Addiction Works in the Brain

Using or abusing an intoxicating substance does more than merely alter a person’s behavior—it literally can make physical and chemical changes within the brain. What happens to the brain during addiction? Different drugs have different effects. For example:

  • The active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” psilocybin, slows the neural activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for creating a person’s sense of “self.”
  • A regular smoker of marijuana has a smaller orbitofrontal cortex—the part of the brain that helps people make decisions and process emotions—than a non-smoker. In possible compensation, the cross-brain connections become thicker.
  • It has long been known that drinking can affect a person physically. Still, researchers have discovered that episodes of binge drinking—downing four or more drinks in one two-hour sitting if you’re a woman or five if you’re a man—affect how the brain processes information in the long term. It was also found that binge drinkers have to “recruit” new brain areas to help process data since the traditional regions become impaired and can no longer fully handle their necessary duties.
  • Cocaine affects the memory centers of the brain that help us remember where a pleasurable experience came from. The euphoric cocaine “high” creates pleasurable memories of such vividness that just seeing a picture of someone else using the drug can trigger cravings. Regular exposure to cocaine changes the brain cells within the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that helps with inhibition control and decision-making.
  • Ecstasy strongly affects critical areas of the brain disturbingly. Activity in the brain areas involved in how a person learns and remembers things is significantly impaired in chronic ecstasy users.

Addictive behaviors disrupt a person’s normal thought processes, impulse control, decision-making ability, and even the ability to distinguish between conscious choice and involuntary action.

The Mechanics of Addiction

An addiction develops because of an abused substance’s effect on the brain’s reward centers. When human beings perform some action—for example, taking an illicit drug—that fulfills a basic survival need or satisfies a desire, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, creating a pleasurable feeling as a reward. Usually, these rewards are primarily reserved for actions that promote survival. These pleasurable rewards come after an expenditure of effort and the associated delay in making that effort.

Addictive drugs are a shortcut to those rewards because they trigger a massive amount of dopamine, “training” the brain that the use was an extremely pleasurable experience and, therefore, worthy of remembering and repeating. The human brain has not evolved naturally to handle such a rush of dopamine, so the body shuts down the natural production of dopamine. After repeated drug abuse, the body becomes unable to naturally produce the neurotransmitter, meaning that the only way the addict can feel pleasure—or even normal—is to use the drug again to stimulate dopamine production artificially.

Find Addiction Treatment in Idaho at Northpoint Recovery

The more we know about the disease of addiction and how it affects us, the more weapons we can soon have at our disposal to battle the illness and its catastrophic consequences. To learn more about what happens to the brain during addiction, contact Northpoint Recovery today at 888.296.8976.