Substance use and abuse have many effects on the brain that may lead to addiction. Drugs and alcohol are used in order to achieve a certain pleasurable experience from use of these substances. Long term or excessive use can lead to addiction in some individuals. This is because the brain actually changes in several ways in response to drug or alcohol use.
What Is Addiction?
Addiction occurs when the brain has changed to create a craving for drugs or alcohol. Someone who is addicted will no longer have control over the use of the substance, even if negative consequences are experienced. According to Helpguide.org:
- Almost 23 million people in the United States are addicted to drugs or alcohol
- More than 2/3 of those with an addiction abuse alcohol
- The drugs causing most addictions are marijuana, narcotic pain killers, and cocaine
Addiction Effects on the Brain
Addiction affects the brain because of actual changes in the reward center, though these changes occur over time. When drugs or alcohol are used, it invokes a pleasurable response in the brain. This is then stored in memory. As long as the use of the substance continues to give enjoyment, the brain keeps memory records that associate the substance use with pleasure. These memories become ingrained and long-lasting. This is part of what makes it difficult for people to quit using harmful substances, even when substance use begins to be associated with negative consequences.
Substance Abuse and Reward Pathways
When using drugs or alcohol, neurotransmitters in the brain are activated. Neurotransmitters are responsible for sending messages in the brain. Some drugs may mimic neurotransmitters but since they are not, they send conflicting and confusing signals throughout the brain. Other drugs cause the brain to become flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that works in areas of the brain responsible for pleasure, emotion, memory, motivation, and the way the brain reacts to naturally pleasurable events. According to information published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug and alcohol use causes from 2 to 10 times more dopamine to be released than naturally occurring pleasurable events such as eating certain foods and engaging in sex1. When memories are triggered regarding drug or alcohol use, the brain’s reward center begins to crave the substance, leading to continued use of the desired substance.
Changes in the Brain’s Reward Center from Addiction
Once the brain has experienced the intense feelings of pleasure brought on by such increased levels of dopamine, no naturally occurring event can compare. Those who experience issues with substance abuse often find no pleasure in normal daily activities. Only drug or alcohol use can bring back the intensely pleasurable feelings. In this way, substance abuse actually affects the way the brain reacts to pleasure, limiting the options affected individuals have of being able to further experience pleasure.
Decrease in Pleasure as the Brain Compensates
When the brain is consistently flooded with too much dopamine, it will compensate by reducing the amount of dopamine that is produced or by reducing the number of receptors that can be activated to feel pleasure. Without drugs or alcohol, those who are addicted will not be able to feel pleasure and will often experience symptoms of depression. Drug or alcohol use will be the only thing to help them feel normal or to be able to reach a minimal level of pleasure. In order to feel higher levels of pleasure like they previously experienced from drugs or alcohol, more of the substance needs to be taken.
Changes in Judgment and Control
Substance use is most likely to continue once the reward pathways are altered. The brain becomes further changed in the frontal cortex region. It is here where the brain can think, plan, and make decisions. Continued exposure to high levels of dopamine can affect a person’s judgment, as well as their impulse control. This makes it even harder over time to be able to abstain from drug or alcohol use.
Cognitive Functioning and Substance Addiction
Neurotransmitters are necessary for learning and cognitive functioning, as well as the retention of memories. Other neurotransmitters are also affected during the addiction processes in the brain, making it more difficult for those addicted to substances to learn and process information appropriately. Motivation centers in the brain are affected by the intense pleasurable memories associated with drug use, leading to an enhanced reaction to obtain and use substances when cravings are triggered by these memories. All of the changes in the brain last a long time after drug or alcohol use has stopped.
How to Overcome Changes to the Brain
The addiction effects on the brain are very long-lasting. This is what makes it so difficult to not only quit using drugs or alcohol once addiction is present, but it also makes it hard to stay quit off of the substance in order to prevent relapse. It is recommended that those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol should receive professional help, preferably through an inpatient drug or alcohol rehabilitation facility. Professional treatment can help show someone who is addicted to how to deal with addiction’s effects on the brain and the best way to deal with and overcome these changes. An inpatient facility keeps users away from harmful substances during the treatment period, allowing for increased focusing on treatment and recovery.