Although researchers have conducted decades of research and studies in an attempt to understand the impact of substance use on the brain, much remains unknown. While there is a general scientific consensus around the fact that addiction should be viewed as a brain disease and a behavioral disorder, there is still plenty of room for new discoveries.
Unlocking the mystery of addiction and its effects on the brain is essential to improving prevention and treatment. Presently, treatment focuses on the information that scientists have discovered so far which continues to lead to highly successful interventions, such as medication-supported recovery.
Substances can also affect the brain in a physical sense. Brain damage is evident with most substance use disorders, but is most commonly seen with severe alcohol use disorder and methamphetamine addiction. Someone with alcohol use disorder may experience cognitive impairment, brain shrinkage, a brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or dementia. Someone addicted to methamphetamine may also experience a cognitive decline, along with other symptoms like psychosis, mental confusion and an increased risk of stroke.
How substances impact the brain’s reward center
The most commonly accepted theory in regards to addiction revolves around the belief that it’s a neurobiological issue involving the brain’s dopamine reinforcement system — also referred to as the reward center of the brain. When substance use takes over the reward system, the individual can no longer control their substance use.
When an individual consumes a substance, it initially causes a deeply enjoyable response. Depending on the substance, these effects might include a sense of euphoria, relaxation, altered sensory experiences, a heightened sense of energy or focus, and pain relief. The brain’s reward center registers the experience as a positive experience that should be repeated. This, in addition to other factors such as genetics or personality traits, can trigger addiction.
How addiction develops
Once the experience with the substance has been imprinted on the brain as something pleasurable, it increases the likelihood of an individual developing an addiction later on. This is the cycle of addiction, by which the brain triggers the individual to seek and consume the substance, followed by a period of recovery from its effects.
Increased tolerance causes the substance use to escalate — as the individual continues to use the substance, their brain and central nervous system become more resistant to its effects. This drives the individual to consume higher or more frequent doses to obtain the same effects.
Understanding the cycle of addiction
One of the key aspects of addiction is the uncontrollable and compulsive substance use. The individual continues seeking and using the substance, despite the damage it is causing to their health and their life. New brain pathways are etched, making it difficult to break free from the addiction cycle, which includes these three elements:
- Intoxication: When the substance is ingested, dopamine is released into the bloodstream, causing the desired effects.
- Withdrawal: After the individual has developed dependence due to increased tolerance, they experience withdrawal symptoms when the substance wears off.
- Anticipation: Driven by the psychological dependence, physical cravings and other triggers, the individual becomes preoccupied with obtaining a new supply of the substance. This culminates in a repeat of the addiction cycle.
To break the addiction cycle, the individual must learn new thought and behavioral responses to the cravings and other triggers that would otherwise spur substance use. This is accomplished through participation in a multi-faceted treatment program that includes withdrawal management, psychotherapy, the 12 Step program, holistic and experiential activities, and balanced nutrition and exercise.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.