While addiction is said to last a lifetime, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the harmful effects on your brain will. Addiction is a complex condition that is considered by the majority of healthcare professionals to be a disease of the brain. It is often characterized by compulsive, almost uncontrollable, drug seeking and drug-using behavior despite negative consequences. People who suffer from drug addiction (or severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on getting and using a certain substance, like drugs or alcohol, to the point that it takes over their lives. Furthermore, they keep using drugs or alcohol even when they know it will cause further problems in their lives, family, and even health.
How Addiction Changes the Brain
Addiction impacts the brain on many levels when someone develops an addiction, the brain craves the substance as a reward. The brain responds to addiction in several different ways depending on a number of factors, such as; the type of drugs used, the number of different drugs being used at the same time, the frequency or number of times drugs or alcohol are used within a specific period of time, and what stage of addiction the addict is in.
The brain is responsible for a majority of functions within the body. The brain regulates temperature, the emotions we feel, the decisions we make, simple things like breathing and coordination, and much much more. This major organ in our body also impacts physical sensations that we feel, it is responsible for the cravings we get, for our compulsions and our habits. When someone is under the influence of powerful and harmful chemicals, like heroin or methamphetamines, they can alter the function of their brain.
Most drugs interact with the reward center or pleasure center of the brain, releasing strong feel-good emotions that affect the individual’s body and mind. Our brains reward us when we do something that brings us pleasure, normally to encourage healthy habits that are meant for survival, like eating a good meal or working out. People who take drugs or alcohol continue doing so to support the intensely good feelings our brain releases, creating a cycle of drug use and intense highs. Eventually, they have to take drugs just to feel normal.
Our brains are essentially wired to increase the odds that we will repeat pleasurable activities. The neurotransmitter dopamine is central to this, and when drugs or alcohol are released into the brain, we get a big surge in our dopamine receptors. The same goes for when our reward center is activated by a healthy pleasurable experience, just a much smaller amount. This burst of dopamine trains our brain to think that something important is happening and that it needs to be remembered.
This dopamine signal causes changes in neural connectivity that make it easier to repeat this activity, or using drugs and alcohol, again and again, and again, without thinking about it, leading to the formation of our habits. Since drugs produce intense euphoria and a surge of dopamine, our brains powerfully reinforce the connection between the consumption of the drug and resulting pleasure and all of the external cues (or triggers) that link the experience. This teaches our brains to seek drugs at all other expenses, it tricks your brain into believing that we need it to survive.
Parts of The Brain That Are Mostly Affected by Drug Abuse.
We know by now that drugs cause damage to the brain and brain function. While drugs have an impact on a number of areas in the brain, there are 3 main areas most heavily affected by drug or alcohol abuse.
- Basal ganglia- This area of the brain plays an important role in positive forms of motivation, including the pleasurable effects of healthy activities like eating, socializing, and sex. This area of the brain is also involved in the formation of habits and routines. This is a key node of the brain’s reward center. Drugs over-activate this circuit, producing the euphoric “high” feeling. With repeated exposure, this circuit adapts to the presence of the drug, diminishing its sensitivity and ability to feel pleasure without drugs.
- The extended amygdala- This area of the brain plays a major role in stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, uncomfortability, all of which characterize the feelings of withdrawal after the euphoric drug high fades, motivating the person to seek drugs again to avoid these stressful feelings. This circuit of the brain becomes increasingly sensitive with continued drug use and over time, a person who struggles with addiction used drugs to get temporary relief from this discomfort that was initially caused by using drugs, to begin with. This helps attribute to the cycle of drug-seeking behavior as they would rather get high then feel their emotions.
- The prefrontal cortex- This part of the brain is crucial. It powers the ability to think, plan, problem-solve, decision making, and the ability to exert self-control over impulses. This is also the last part of the brain to mature, making teens more vulnerable. This is why it is illegal to even drink before you turn the age of 21, the brain has not yet fully developed until later on in life. Shifting the balance between this circuit, to the reward circuit, and then back to the stress circuits of the basal ganglia and extended amygdala is what makes a person with a substance use disorder seek drugs compulsively with reduced impulse control.
Can The Brain Heal?
According to the National Institute of Health, one year of abstinence partially reversed the structural changes in the brain of an alcoholic. The most brain improvement will happen within the first year of complete abstinence, where some improvement can take 5 to 7 years. After around 14 months of sobriety, though, the dopamine receptors in the brain return to normal. So yes, the brain can heal and this is an exciting new area of study for doctors who have started using brain scan images to help addicts in their sobriety. While some damage may be permanent, quitting drugs and alcohol ensures no further damage is caused. The only way to guarantee that you are no longer causing harm to your body or your brain is to get help by reaching out to a 12 step support group or by attending an addiction treatment facility.