How Substance Use and Addiction Affect the Brain
Long-term substance abuse can have serious damaging effects on the brain, affecting the communication of neurons with neurotransmitters. Some drugs, such as heroin, essentially mimic the brain’s natural chemicals. This affects the overall communication system between your brain and body.
Here we will break down the parts of the brain that drugs affect, how brain communication is affected, and the science of drug addiction.
Parts of the Brain Affected by Substance Abuse
The parts of the brain that are required for life-saving functions can be drastically affected by drug use. These parts include:
The Basal Ganglia
This part of the brain plays a critical role in motivation and the effects of pleasure. Everything we enjoy in life, from socializing with friends to good food and drink, is because of the basal ganglia. It’s no surprise that this part of the brain is nicknamed “the reward circuit.”
We all love this reward circuit, but drugs can over-activate it, which actually is a bad thing. The resulting euphoria from substance use causes the brain circuit to adapt to the substance. The consequence is no longer being able to experience “rewards,” or pleasure, from anything but the drug or alcohol.
The Extended Amygdala
This part of the brain is responsible for feelings of anxiety and irritability. Much less pleasurable than the reward center, this part of the brain is nonetheless necessary because it helps you know when something is wrong. These feelings can be exacerbated during drug withdrawal. It becomes very sensitive over time with continued drug use. A person addicted to drugs will only be able to temporarily calm anxious, stressful feelings by getting drunk or high.
The Prefrontal Cortex
This part of the brain is responsible for impulse control, making decisions, solving problems, and exercising judgment. Quite frustratingly, it’s the last part of the brain to develop in full; this happens during the mid-twenties. This makes young people, particularly teenagers, particularly vulnerable to peer pressure to use drugs. With time, the diminished ability to control impulses will lead to increased drug use, resulting in decreased regard for consequences.
How Drugs Affect Brain Communication
Brain communication happens when chemical messengers called neurotransmitters carry signals from neurons to target cells. It’s because of neurotransmitters that we are able to respond physically and emotionally to the world around us.
These signals from the brain are how we know to remove our hand from a hot stove because that hurts, or to stay in a hot shower for a bit longer because it feels good. It’s how we are able to respond with happiness or sadness to different circumstances. Drugs and alcohol can deceive the brain’s receptors of these messages. This can result in abnormal messages being sent to the brain, making it hard for the addicted person to see if they are harming themselves or others.
Other drugs target the brain’s pleasure center and release too much dopamine, also known as the “feel good” chemical we get from romantic love or puppies or a favorite food. Too much dopamine can produce a pleasurable, temporary high, reducing the ability to derive pleasure from things that are meant to give pleasure. That means a person could have sex or eat good food without experiencing any good feelings at all.
How Dopamine Encourages Addiction
When things feel good, we naturally tend to seek them out. That’s a natural response, confounded with impulse control so we can enjoy them responsibly—particularly useful for people on a diet who may love chocolate. The brain is wired to repeat behaviors that activate dopamine, so the brain remembers to do this again.
The combination of dopamine overload and reduced impulse control from drug use trains the brain to start craving those effects. Repeated use will require larger amounts of the drug to repeat the same pleasurable effect, a phenomenon called tolerance. Continuing in this habit, the drug use will eventually become a full-blown addiction.
Addiction is a physical effect as well as an emotional one. Someone trying to conquer addiction can feel triggered by their environment as well as physical cravings. For example, even someone who has abstained from drug use for a significant amount of time can experience a trigger if they find themselves in the same house or neighborhood where they used to get high.
Why Drugs Are More Addictive Than Natural Rewards
If a song is playing too loud, the natural inclination is to turn down the volume. If a child is shouting inside, the natural inclination is to tell them to use their “indoor voice.” This is what it’s like for the brain to experience normal rewards versus ones that are caused by drug use. Drug use causes the brain to adjust by producing fewer neurotransmitters in the pleasure circuit. With fewer receptors, the less ability you have to receive brain signals telling you when something is too much.
This phenomenon helps explain why drug addicts can come across as lifeless, lacking in motivation, depressed, or “flat” in personality. The person that families and friends know and love has essentially been consumed by the addiction. The lack of motivation can make it difficult to convince them to a point where they genuinely want to live sober.
Substance abuse can have serious long-term effects on the brain. Spero Recovery exists to help men and women conquer their addiction and be able to live a healthy, sober life. Because the recovery process looks different for everyone based on the complexity of addiction, we offer a variety of treatment options. Located in the beautiful state of Colorado, we offer recovery programs for men and women that involve the 12-Steps of Recovery in group settings. Our healing techniques include not only the latest in scientific treatments for addiction but also hiking trails, woodworking shops, cooking classes, meditation, and more. We also offer aftercare services in the form of sober living homes, in which people working toward the common goal of sobriety live together in community. To learn more about our treatment options, call today at 303-351-7888. You can also reach us through our website.