Addiction is one of the most pressing issues facing the United States today. Too many individuals and families have their lives ripped apart due to an addiction to substances such as alcohol, recreational drugs, and prescription drugs. In order to get a better handle on the epidemic that is addiction, it is important to understand just how addiction develops. This begins by understanding the impact that addiction has on the brain. There are several ways that addiction impacts the brain. It is these impacts that ultimately leads to the manifestation of this dangerous disease.
Addiction is a serious disease that impacts the brain in multiple ways. There are three separate ways that addiction can take control of the brain. These include developing a craving for the object of the addiction, creating a sense of loss of control related to its use, and, finally, continuing involvement with the object of addiction despite the tremendous consequences that it creates.
Breaking the hold that addiction has on the brain is central in the recovery process. Unfortunately, even though overcoming an addiction is certainly possible, this process is slow and complicated. For years, researchers have been studying just how addiction impacts the brain, trying to find a way to break its hold. At first, society thought that punishment would serve as an effective deterrent. This has not been proven to be true.
Since those days, the science surrounding addiction has changed substantially. Now, addiction is viewed as a chronic disease that impacts the brain in both its structure and its function. It has been compared to numerous other diseases that impact other parts of the body such as the heart and pancreas. While it is important for people to say “no” to drugs, the strategy of recovery is far more nuanced, involving psychotherapy, self-care, and medication. It focuses on the impacts of addiction on the brain itself.
When pleasure signals enter the brain, they are all registered in the same manner. It doesn’t matter whether the pleasure stems from money, food, a physical encounter, or a drug of some type. All of these encounters deliver a signal to the pleasure center of the brain, leading to the release of dopamine from the nucleus accumbens. In this area, a cluster of nerve cells is responsible for this release. When a surge of dopamine is triggered, it is more likely to lead to addiction if this neurotransmitter is released quickly. Furthermore, how a drug is used (such as inhalation versus injection) can impact how addictive it is because it impacts the speed with which dopamine is released. The faster dopamine is released, the stronger the signal is, and the greater impact this has on an addictive potential.
Dopamine doesn’t only contribute to the addictive potential of a drug. Dopamine also plays a role in the learning and memory processes, which are important in the process of addiction. Based on the information from researchers, dopamine impacts with glutamate and this interaction plays a role in how the brain interprets the reward system. This system, while important for survival (because it teaches people how to eat), plays a role in addiction. Repeated exposure to a substance that is addictive will cause the individual to not only like that substance but also desire it. This creates the drive to seek out that substance, which can lead to drug abuse and addiction.
Over time, that pleasurable substance that leads to addiction will actually become less pleasurable. Dopamine will not impact the brain as much as it did initially, in a process called tolerance. This means that people will need to take more of something to exhibit the same effects. Despite the reduced effects, people do not avoid that addictive substance but instead seek it out to a greater and greater extent. This is a process called compulsion. These are the cravings that many people experience after fighting for sobriety. This creates the danger of relapse that people need help dealing within addiction treatment.
Understanding how drug abuse and addiction impact the brain is the first step in the recovery process. By understanding how addiction impacts the brain, treatment plans can be generated to target this disease at its roots. Fortunately for those who suffer from addiction, there are treatment options available. These take the form of inpatient treatment programs, intensive outpatient programs, generalized outpatient programs, and more. All of these can be tailored to meet the individual where he or she is and walk with them during the recovery process. With the help of trained professionals, family members, and friends, everyone has a chance of making a meaningful recovery.