Science is slowly but surely unlocking the mystery of addiction. Learning about how psychoactive substances can take the brain hostage, leading to substance dependency and addiction, is an ever-evolving research field. As we understand how substances affect neurochemistry, new medications that help support recovery will be developed.
What is Addiction?
When someone uses a substance, whether for recreational purposes, to self-medicate a mood disorder, or control pain after a surgery or injury, they often experience a euphoric or relaxing effect. This pleasurable response registers in the brain’s reward system as a positive, desirable experience. The memory of this experience then motivates the person to repeat it.
Unfortunately, repeated exposure to the substance over time can result in addiction or substance use disorder. This happens when the substance causes adaptations in brain chemicals, neural pathways, and the central nervous system, setting up the three-stage cycle of addiction. The cycle of addiction includes:
- Stage 1: Intoxication. The individual experiences pleasant effects of the substance due to the release of dopamine in the brain. Over time, the brain makes a connection between pleasure and the substance, leading the individual to continue using the substance.
- Stage 2: Withdrawal. Once the brain adaptations to the substance have occurred, the individual experiences unpleasant withdrawal effects when the substance wears off. This causes the person to return to the substance, no longer to experience the euphoria or pleasant effects, but to avoid feeling sick from the withdrawal symptoms.
- Stage 3: Anticipation. The individual becomes preoccupied with seeking out the substance after its effects have worn off. The brain’s executive functions, such as emotion control, decision-making, impulse control, and prioritizing tasks, are overridden due to a disruption in brain chemistry. The person loses control over the substance and the addiction cycle repeats.
Drug and Alcohol Effects on the Brain
Historically, addiction was blamed on a lack of moral character, sowing the early seeds of stigma. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the American Medical Association recognized that alcoholism was a disease of the brain. This opened up a whole new realm of scientific discovery regarding the impact of substances on brain structures and functioning, and how to best provide treatment for individuals with substance use disorders.
Understanding the neurobiological aspects of addiction helps us to better grasp how a substance can have such devastating effects on someone’s life. Ongoing study of the neuroadaptations that occur from substance use has shed light on the long-term effects of these brain changes. We now know that the altered neural pathways can remain altered long after someone has stopped using the substance. This discovery has contributed to our understanding of how powerful cravings can lead to relapse, months or even years into recovery.
Factors that Contribute to Addiction
Why one person may become addicted to a substance where another, with the same consumption habits, does not remain one of the more vexing questions about substance use and addiction. Substance use can progress due to several factors that influence substance-seeking behaviors. These factors include:
- Genetics and biology. Family history of addiction and other still unknown biological factors can predispose someone to addiction.
- Age of onset. The earlier the substance use begins, the higher the chances that the individual will develop a substance use disorder later in life.
- Personality traits. The person’s unique psychological makeup, coping skills, temperament, resilience capacity, and personality all factor in.
- Environmental. Family dynamics and early childhood experiences shape a person’s mental wellbeing. A history of abuse, neglect, attachment disorder, and family discord can set the stage for a substance use disorder later in life.
- Negative life events. Experiencing trauma or the loss of a parent or sibling, or any devastating life event can lead someone to begin self-medicating symptoms of depression or anxiety.
There is still much to be learned about why some people develop addictions while others do not. The more that is revealed through neurobiology, the clearer our understanding becomes about the prevention, causes, and treatment of substance use disorders.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.