Addiction messes with the brain.
We sort of know this already, don’t we? Insensitive phrases like “drugs make people crazy” paired with a few wild stories, and we all agree—yeah, they’re something going on up there.
But do we actually understand the science behind addiction and the brain? Because this matters.
Only when we grasp the details of what’s happening inside the mind can we truly empathize and begin to offer the right kind of support.
Are you in for a quick lesson?
A Few Brain Basics
For our purposes, we’re going to focus on three main functions of the brain: sending messages, experiencing pleasure and making decisions.
We’ll start by taking a look at how these things flow in a normal, non-addicted brain:
The brain uses neurons to send messages.
Running through your noggin’ are networks of neurons—all busy sending signals that tell you to take a breath, scratch your knee and hop over that banana peel.
Dopamine encourages us to pursue pleasure.
When something feels good or makes us happy, our brain sends out a burst of dopamine that says, “Hey, that was nice!”
The brain uses circuits to help us make decisions.
After the dopamine bump, our brain instructs us to remember the moment and to consider it when we make related decisions in the future.
How The Brain Changes When Substances Are Introduced
Let’s take a look at what happens when addiction and the brain come together.
Substance misuse causes neuron interference.
When drugs enter the brain, they take a ride on the network of neurons, effectively changing the way they communicate. Depending on the substance, drugs may cause neurons to send abnormal messages, amplify communication, disrupt its regular flow or induce message surges.
It causes a dopamine dump.
Drugs hijack our pleasure and reward systems by producing a higher-than-normal dose of dopamine, which tells the brain that this feels especially good—perhaps better than anything else we’ve ever experienced before.
Substance misuse causes a short circuit of sorts.
Drugs override the pause provided by the prefrontal cortex in the brain, effectively giving precedence to finding more drugs in all decision-making scenarios.
It’s important also to note that, beyond the changes mentioned above, opioids, in particular, are known for interfering directly with the brain stem—sometimes slowing heart and breathing rates to dangerous or even fatal levels.
Why Brain Changes Make Overcoming Addiction So Challenging
If drugs alter the way our brains work, it’s no wonder people struggle to overcome addiction. Still, in order to better empathize, let’s consider a few of the specific struggles they face:
Due to neuron interference: In addiction, the brain develops a link between drug use and surrounding environments. Meaning that every time a person encounters something or someone related to their own substance misuse, the brain pipes up.
As a result of the dopamine dump: The dopamine dump provided by drugs not only amplifies the good feelings of substance misuse, it also dampens the good feelings of regular life. Getting sober doesn’t just feel depressing. In many cases, it actually is.
Because of the short-circuit: The prefrontal cortex of a person dealing with addiction tends to focus heavily on immediate satisfaction while discounting any benefits to be found in the future.
Thankfully, treatment can help. Here at The Right Step DFW, we understand what happens to the brain during addiction, and we know how to help you break through and eventually retrain your brain.
Hopefully, you have a better understanding of why the addicted brain functions the way it does. If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, call The Right Step DFW at 844.675.1557
By Stephanie Thomas
Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health