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How Addiction Affects the Brain

How Addiction Affects the Brain

The brain is one of the most important and dynamic organs in our body. Your brain is what makes you, you. The brain allows you to do day-to-day functions like think, breathe, move, speak, as well as feel. It is imperative that we fuel our brains efficiently to ensure proper functionality. However, when putting chemicals, such as drugs, into the body it has a large impact on the brain. But, how addiction affects the brain is the question.

When using drugs for a prolonged period, thus creating an addiction, causes changes to the brain. The four fundamental changes the brain can experience are:

  1. Changes to the brain’s natural balance (homeostasis)
  2. Alters brain chemistry
  3. Alters the brain’s communication pathways
  4. Changes to the brain structure and functionality

Changes to the Brain’s Natural Balance (Homeostasis)

First, let’s look at what homeostasis is. Homeostasis is the ability of an organism, in this case, us humans, to regulate internal conditions so that cells are able to function properly. Chronic over-stimulation of the brain, which occurs in addiction, interferes with this natural balance of the brain.

When the natural balance gets thrown off the brain begins working to adapt and adjust. This new balance is called allostasis. Some of the changes the brain makes to adapt to the behaviors caused by addiction are:

  • The overwhelming need to obtain drugs or continue harmful activities
  • The extreme difficulty to quit these drugs or activities
  • Allowing your addiction to complelty consume your life

Once a drug addiction has altered the brain, the brain now needs the substance to maintain the new homeostatic balance. This is one reason why drug addiction is so dangerous because once it has offset the natural balance, the brain believes it needs the drug to function.

Alters Brain Chemistry

The brain is made up of different regions or sections, which each function differently. The brain’s communication system allows for specific parts to rapidly communicate with one another. Neurons are the cells that help with communication between regions. Our brains contain billions of neural connections which form the foundation for an electrochemical communication system.

The brain also controls how our body functions which is why each region needs to be able to communicate thoroughly. Our brain’s communication system is always changing and adapting. Addiction alters the brain’s communication system, thus altering the way the brain functions and its chemistry. Some of the neurotransmitters in the brain that play a role in the addiction process are:

Some of these specific neurotransmitters are more sensitive to specific drugs, especially dopamine. Cocaine and methamphetamine have a strong effect on dopamine in the brain. When these neurotransmitters are affected the brain chemistry begins to change.

Alters the Brain’s Communication Pathways

Over time, our brains create a preferred pathway of communication to send signals between neurons. Neurons and neural pathways are continuously created by our brains throughout our entire lifespan. Thus, our neurons and calls are forever changing and adapting to different circumstances.

One way our brain adapts and changes to specific circumstances is if our brain is damaged from a stroke or injury. Our brain actually creates new communication pathways to go around the damaged area. This is known as neuroplasticity. When a person develops an addiction, new neural pathways are formed because the addiction has chemically altered the brain’s communication system.

When the substance use stops, the brain begins to make new neural pathways once again. This explains why the initial period of recovery is so difficult and uncomfortable because our brains are beginning to learn and pave pathways without the substance. Although it may be difficult at first, the more our brains use these new pathways, the more recognizable and easy to navigate. Thus, making the recovery process easier as time goes on.

Changes to the Brain Structure and Functionality

Like we touched on above, our brains are made up of many different regions and structures. The brain’s communication system allows for each region and structure to coordinate and work as a unit. All of the different regions and strucutres that make up the brain serve different purposes. When addiction occurs, it can not only alter the structure but the way the brain functions.

Four of the main structures or regions of the brain affected by addiction are:

  1. Cerebral Cortex
  2. Reward System
  3. Amygdala
  4. Hypothalamus

When addiction affects our cerebral cortex it affects or causes impaired decision making, impulsivity, and compulsivity. The reward system is responsible for cravings and drug-seeking behaviors. The Amygdala controls and causes us to form habits, cravings, withdrawal effects, and relapse triggers. Finally, the hypothalamus is responsible for stress regulation and withdrawal. Addiction causes these parts of the brain to change in structure, as well as normal functunality.

Get Help Today

If you are ready to fight your addiction and get help through highly individualized treatment services contact the Harm Reduction Center. At Harm, our goal is to empower and support each and every client that walks through our doors. We recognize that recovery looks different for everyone and create a plan that works best for you and your lifestyle.

We are here to support you and help you every step of the way. Offering integrated Medication-Assisted Treatment, as well as all outpatient levels of care. We empower you to choose a path for yourself with collaboration from loved ones and our treatment team, assisting and supporting your journey to recovery.