Through the JAMA Psychiatry Network, the American Medical Association reports on the prevalence of addiction in the United States.
Throughout their lifetime, 29% of adults have lived with addiction to alcohol while another 10% have faced addiction to opioids, stimulants, or other substances. That’s nearly 30 million Americans who live with these struggles each day.
Addiction is a real issue in the United States, but it’s not well understood.
You might know someone with addiction, and you might wonder why they continuously abuse alcohol or drugs even though they know the consequences.
The answer to this lies in the brain of the addict. Drug and alcohol use has been shown to have a great impact on the brain, and today we are going to look closely at this issue.
What Is Addiction?
No one who uses drugs sets out to become an addict. Many people think they are just going to try it once without realizing that they can easily get hooked.
The American Psychiatric Association explains addiction as a complex condition where the person continually uses a substance regardless of the consequences they face. Addiction causes a person to have a single-minded focus on using whatever substance they are addicted to. This focus results in impairment in day to day activities.
For many years, people thought that addiction was just a sign of a person’s poor morals or lack of willpower. We know now that addiction is a disease, and that it can affect every part of the human body.
The Central Nervous System And Drug Use
The central nervous system is made up of your brain and spinal cord, as well as all the nerves that extend into your body from the spinal cord. This system is how your brain sends messages to your body, and your body sends messages to your brain. It’s what tells you to breathe, smell, and blink.
The central nervous system also controls the release of hormones, it influences your behavior and regulates emotions, it controls your heart rate and regulates digestion, and it protects your neurotransmitters and neurons in your brain.
The body’s central nervous system is greatly impacted by substance abuse. Using drugs and alcohol can cause the messages between your brain and bodily systems to be sped up or slowed down. This is why when someone is drunk or high, they often experience slurred speech, delayed reaction times, or slowed breathing.
Long term abuse of drugs can cause damage to nerves and tissue throughout the body, cause brain damage, impede neuron transmission, and cause dysfunction in vital organs.
Neurotransmitters And Drug Use
There are many different chemicals known as neurotransmitters at work in your brain. These chemicals are responsible for a whole host of things in your body. Some of the more commonly known neurotransmitters are:
- Dopamine – responsible for regulating moods, enhancing pleasure, playing a role in movement and motivation, and rewarding and reinforcing behaviors
- Serotonin – responsible for regulating emotions and keeping moods stable
- Norepinephrine – known as the “stress hormone”, norepinephrine is responsible for speeding up the nervous system, regulating energy levels, and maintaining focus and attention
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – responsible for acting as a tranquilizer, lowering anxiety and stress, and slowing the central nervous system
All of these neurotransmitters are affected by drug use. Drugs will affect the neurotransmitters in a different way, but continuous misuse of drugs and alcohol will damage the brain and its ability to communicate with the body.
How Does Drug Use Affect Dopamine Receptors In Your Brain?
There are over 100 different neurotransmitters on the human brain, and all serve different functions. One of the neurotransmitters that plays a heavy role in the addiction process is dopamine.
When using drugs, alcohol, or other substances, your brain experiences incentivized arousal. Research shows that when your brain experiences this situation, it is almost a Pavlovian experience (referring to Pavlov’s experiment with his dogs).
Your brain quickly learns that the drug or alcohol you have consumed makes it feel good, and it wants to continue getting it. A study published in the APA journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology shows that the brain and body of an addict learn to anticipate the effects of a substance which causes cravings for them.
With repeated use of drugs and alcohol, your brain develops a tolerance for them. This means that your brain learns to be less sensitive to dopamine, and you will be less likely to experience the same high you’ve become accustomed to. In order to achieve it, you’ll have to use more of the substance.
Additionally, the alteration of dopamine receptors in the brain as a result of repeated use of substances can cause life in general to feel less enjoyable.
When your neurotransmitters are not functioning properly you cannot experience pleasure from other rewards. No longer will you find enjoyment in a delicious piece of cake, dinner with a friend, or a great sex session with your partner.
The reward pathway and damaged dopamine receptors will be focused on the only thing that brings enjoyment now – getting drunk or high.
How Addiction Changes Your Brain
In addition to the negative alterations of your brain’s neural connections, your brain can experience many other problems from drug use.
Many studies have been done to determine what happens to the brains of those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol; below are some of the findings.
The basal ganglia is the area of the brain that is associated with learning, emotion, and motor skills. Research has shown that drug abuse enlarges this area of the brain. This can result in psychiatric problems, motor dysfunction, and cognitive impairment.
Researchers found that people who use substances frequently experience a change in the volume in their frontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for logical reasoning and higher thinking. When substance abuse changes how this part of the brain functions, the result can be disastrous. Compulsiveness, lack of self-awareness, and a reduction in cognitive abilities.
While addiction is altering the literal amount of brain tissue a person has, it is also changing the level of brain activity. When studying substance abusers, researchers found that these people had diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains. This is where decision making happens, so it stands to reason that people addicted to drugs and alcohol are not capable of making good decisions.
Therapies For The Addicted Brain
While some drugs can alter your brain forever, the brain damage done by drug use is not always permanent and there is hope for recovery.
It is imperative that someone battling addiction gets the help they need. This is often achieved by entering a rehab program, whether it be inpatient or an intensive outpatient program.
The first step on the road to recovery is detox, followed by treatment for the addiction. Some of the most effective treatments for healing the addicted brain are cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy.
As your brain heals and the neurotransmitters begin to function properly, it is important to find new ways of enjoyment in your life. Instead of drugs that increase dopamine levels in the brain, work with your treatment staff to find ways to raise your dopamine levels without drugs.
With changes in your diet, adding supplements, and engaging in new therapies through options found in experiential therapy – you can navigate recovery and repairing your brain with ease.
If you or a loved one is living with addiction, you don’t have to figure it out alone. We are here to help.
The District Recovery Community is an active and engaging place geared toward healing from addiction. Our staff is experienced in creating programs to suit your needs, and we offer several different options for treatment.
Don’t spend one more day battling your addictions and letting them cause you harm. Contact us today to discuss your options.