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How Addiction Affects the Brain

how addiction affects the brain“This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” These four sentences, while grammatically questionable, made for riveting commercial time in the late 1980s, as viewers watched an egg cooking over high heat and wondered if their brains would really spatter and cook if they took drugs. Some teenagers interviewed by the CNN Student Bureau reported that the commercial kept them away from drug use, but some students interviewed here had more complex questions about the interplay between drug use and brain health. These students would be wise to enroll in science courses and study the issue at length, as much of what experts know about drug use and the brain is in its infancy. Reading up on the basics of what experts do know could keep these curious teens away from substances of abuse, and it might do the same for adults as well.

Starting the Process

Addictions begin with a choice. At one point, the person makes a conscious decision to pick up a pipe, toss back the bottle, inject the needle or snort the powder. These activities begin in the front of the brain, in the consciousness, when signals force the hands and mouth to deliver those drugs to the brain. When those drugs arrive in the brain, they begin to trigger a series of chemical reactions that can lead to long-term damage. Much of this damage occurs in the portions of the brain that deal with reward and pleasure. Many addictive drugs work by boosting levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine inside the brain. This chemical is normally released when people experience something pleasurable, such as a tasty meal or a cool dip in a swimming pool, and while these boosts of pleasure can be memorable, they’re nothing when compared to the rise an addictive drug can bring about. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that drugs can release up to 10 times the amount of dopamine inside the brain that the same brain cells would release in response to a natural signal. This flooding is important, as the brain is hardwired to take note of dopamine and seek it out once more. The brain might come to believe, when it’s been exposed to drugs, that something meaningful and wonderful has taken place and that the brain needs this event to take place once more. At the same time, the brain tends to view a flooding as an error, and in time, the brain can amend its processes in order to keep such intense rushes of dopamine from taking place in the future.

A Signal of Reward

The increase in dopamine levels can make people crave drugs, meaning that they take the drugs again after that initial introduction. The brain believes that the drugs are beneficial, as mentioned, and the person responds by taking the drugs again. If the abuse continues, however, the brain can begin to morph and change, and those changes can serve to lock an addiction into place.

As the brain becomes accustomed to being afloat in a sea of dopamine, it downgrades the damage by:

  • Turning off dopamine receptors
  • Moving dopamine receptors inside the cells
  • Producing smaller amounts of dopamine
  • Recycling dopamine at a faster rate

These adjustments can make the brain less likely to be awash in dopamine, but they can also make people feel just terrible when they don’t have access to drugs. They can feel depressed, sad, low and just sad, as their brains aren’t producing the chemicals they need in order to experience joy. Even events that once caused pleasure can cause no sensation at all, when people have brains amended by drug addiction. People like this might choose to take drugs in order to make themselves feel better. They’re still making a choice, but the chemical changes are driving that choice.

Rising Tide of Pain

As the addiction process continues, the brain begins to interpret the intoxicated state as normal, and it begins to equate sobriety with illness. This is reasonable, as people who have advanced cases of addiction often feel terrible when they’re sober, and the brain might begin to adapt processes in order to ensure that people never do get sober, and therefore don’t experience pain. According to a study in the journal Psychological Review, the brain begins to become attuned to the negative cues that come before sobriety-related pain, and when the brain senses those signals, it responds with cravings for drugs. In a way, the brain is attempting to protect the person from misery, but this response can make an addiction stronger and much more powerful. At this point, when the brain is responding to signals that the intellect hasn’t quite yet picked up on, the addiction is moving from the realm of choice into the neighborhood of compulsion. The body is taking over, protecting its own processes and dealing with its own problems, and the higher functions of the brain are left out of the equation altogether. It’s hard to overcome an issue like this, as the person might not have any control over what is going on at all.

Dealing With Stress

There are many portions of the brain involved in keeping a subconscious addiction alive, and many of these signals come into play when a person is under stress. In a report in the journal Neuron, for example, researchers point to multiple brain stress systems that are all working in tandem and changing in response to an addiction, including:

  • Corticotrophin
  • Norepinephrine
  • Dynorphins
  • Orexin
  • Vasopressin

All of these components have a role to play when a person is under some kind of stress and looking for a solution. The chemical changes caused by an addiction can lead to malfunctions in vital chemicals used in stressful situations, and this could lead people feeling ill at ease and unsure of what to do. The feelings might be buried deep inside the hidden portions of the brain, and the higher brain might interpret these sensations as a basic call for drug use. As a result, when the person is under any kind of stress, the urge to use drugs can grow so strong that it becomes impossible to ignore. The need begins in the subconscious, and it can be hard for the conscious mind to deal with.

Walking Back the Process

During the detoxification process, the person has the opportunity to get sober in slow and steady steps, often with the help of medications. A slow transition like this can allow the brain to begin to heal, turning on dormant receptors and making neurochemicals at a normal rate once more. Some of the changes can be remarkably persistent, however, and people might need to spend months in therapy in order to learn how to bring their urges under their conscious control. Some of these therapies involve bringing a person’s thoughts back to the responses of the body. Quick breathing and a rapid heart rate might go unnoticed, for example, but in therapy, people might learn that these signals indicate that a craving is in process and that something else should be done right now in order to prevent a relapse. Therapy is individualized and not everyone needs the same kind of help, but professionals can and do help people to understand the changes their addictions have brought about, and this kind of work can help people to recover. If you’d like to work on your addiction issue and learn more about how your brain cells have changed due to drug use, please contact us. At Futures of Palm Beach, we can even help you if you’ve developed a mental illness in addition to your addiction. We’d just like to help you to get better. Please call us, and let’s get started.