1-805-202-3440

24/7 Confidential Hotline

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Does The Brain Have an Impact on Addiction?



There is a cultural myth that addiction is a choice. While it may be a choice to first use a substance, continuous use can have a dramatic impact on the brain and lead to a substance use disorder. 

According to Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “the brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.” 

A quick lesson in brain chemistry

The brain is made up of millions of cells called neurons. Neurons are responsible for sending signals throughout different parts of the brain, as well as to and from the body. When a neuron needs to send a signal, it releases a neurotransmitter to connect from one neuron to another. This process creates a neural network, where neurons can signal back and forth in a circuit. This can be a message from our brain to jump, smile, or curl our toes and the returning sensory information about the feel of the sand under our feet, or the breathtaking scenery we’re viewing. 

How do substances affect this process?

When drugs or alcohol are introduced, it interferes with neurotransmitters and therefore affects how the neurons send and receive signals. 

Different substances affect the brain in different ways. For example, depressants (like opioids or benzodiazepines) mimic neurotransmitters and activate neurons, causing abnormal signals to be sent throughout the brain. Stimulants (like cocaine or amphetamines) cause the brain to release abnormal amounts of neurotransmitters and can cause a euphoric high.

When someone uses substances and feels pleasurable effects, this is due specifically to the effects of a particularly reinforcing chemical called dopamine. Because dopamine allows the user to experience pleasure as they would after a really good meal, caring for loved ones, or having sex, they’re highly motivated to continue drug-seeking and using behavior. 

Not only does this exist on a somewhat-conscious level, this additionally changes the brain’s neural networks, creating physiological cravings, and making it easier for substance use to become a habit. 

How does this lead to addiction?

Over time and continued use, because you are providing an external source, the brain will severely decrease producing neurotransmitters on its own. This means that individuals now rely on ingesting substances to have normal levels of dopamine, or pleasure. Without them, they may feel unmotivated, helpless, and depressed. 

This rewiring of the brain causes drugs to become the priority for survival. The brain perceives drugs as more important than connection to others, success, money, even food, water, and shelter. The brain becomes physically, emotionally, and biologically dependent on the substance, and the individual becomes addicted.

What does recovery do to the brain?

While addiction can cause significant and sometimes long-term effects on the brain, it is possible to recover. 

Oftentimes when an individual stops taking a substance, they experience withdrawals as the body and brain detox from the substance. The withdrawal period depends on the substance, how long it was used for, and how often. Withdrawals can last days to sometimes months, and so it is often helpful to detox in a safe and structured environment

However, with continued abstinence and the right supports, the brain will remarkably heal itself. Not only will improvements in memory, executive functioning, and cognitive processes improve, but also the brain’s ability to find pleasure and enjoyment in activities and life again. 
Priorities are able to shift away from substances and align to the individual’s needs, wants, and values. Over time and with the right treatment, recovery from addiction is attainable and the brain’s ability to heal is possible.

Recovery at The Haven at Pismo

As a fully-equipped treatment center, we are capable of meeting you where you’re at on your journey towards recovery and provide you with the right support all along the way. As a part of our “phase program”, we can lead you right from our beautiful detox residence, The Pines, into residential care and follow that with our Partial Hospitalization or Outpatient programs. 

At The Haven, we understand how addiction has impacted, and in many ways “hijacked”, the brains of the guests who come to us to heal. Not only can we offer a plan to help the brain detox and heal from harmful substances; we also understand that through holistic healing in mind, body, and soul, you’ll have your best chance to truly experience long term recovery. 

Contact us today, no matter where you fall in the journey to recovery to experience real and lasting life change!