Josh Chandler | April 22, 2022

3 Ways Drug Addiction Changes the Brain

How Addiction Develops in the Brain

The human brain is the control center of your body and is the organ that allows your body to function correctly. It is the place where thinking happens and is the place where “you” exist. It is the organ that enables you to have a personality and keeps you alive and functioning throughout your entire life. The brain runs on a delicate balance of chemicals and electrical impulses (neurons firing), and this balance can quickly be interrupted by drug abuse.

Substance abuse and addiction happen when chemical compounds found in drugs like opioids, stimulants, alcohol, and sedatives enter the bloodstream and the brain and change the brain’s reward system. They interfere with the brain’s routine tasks and can, over time, cause irreparable damage.

These chemical changes cause the brain to crave the substance because it stops producing important neurotransmitters and other chemicals like dopamine and serotonin on its own. This process means that a person who has been using drugs will begin to need to take the drug just to be able to feel normal and avoid withdrawal symptoms. Once these changes occur, the drug user begins to lose control over their impulses and will crave the harmful substance, using it even when it causes issues in their health and life, and they no longer wish to use the drug anymore. This is known as addiction, a devastating brain disease.

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How Drugs Change the Brain

The truth of the matter is that at first, drugs feel good. People would not become addicted to drugs if this were not the case. The chemicals found in various substances create sensations of pleasure, euphoria, sedation, or other feelings that people enjoy in the brain that controls pleasure and motivation. The brain provides a short but intense burst of endorphins and dopamine that causes the drug user to want more.

The chemical compounds provided by drinking, smoking, injecting, or inhaling drugs change how the brain processes information. Some drugs overstimulate the “reward circuit” of the brain, while others imitate the brain’s natural chemistry. These changes alter brain function and cause issues with the parts of the brain that allow a person to use drugs to control their impulses and make sound decisions.

The impulse to use more drugs grows stronger as the brain adjusts the “feel-good” chemical dopamine production. The dopamine receptors are also reduced in the brain, making the user rely on the drug to feel any amount of pleasure, joy, or happiness. They will need to take the drug just to feel normal, an effect known as “building a tolerance.”

Drugs also affect the limbic system, causing the brain to “remember” that drugs are what makes you feel good and creating a habit, a reinforced, intense motivation to get more. This process is because our brains are wired to reinforce beneficial behaviors, and the brain mistakenly files drug use alongside “important survival activities,” like social interactions, eating, or creative pursuits. The reward system is activated at a much higher level than healthy actions can produce, and drug use is reinforced on a deeper level, teaching the brain that drugs are more important than healthy activities and goals.

Over time, substance abuse becomes an addiction as the person becomes obsessed with the substance, acting in unrecognizable ways to maintain their habit, continuously seeking and using the drug or drinking, no matter the consequences.

Addiction is a powerful disease. Even after years of treatment, drug cravings and other addiction-related reflexes may persist. In most cases, addiction is a chronic brain disease with no cure, but it can be managed with the right help and support.

See which household items can be used to get high here:

High Risk Household Items That Can Be Used to Get High

Effects of Drug Addiction on the Brain Stem

One of the three principal areas of the brain that addiction and drug abuse affects is the brain stem. This is the brain area that controls the main functions that keep the body alive, from breathing to digesting food to the circulatory system. The brain stem also connects the brain to the spinal cord, which is the “control center” that allows muscles and limbs to move and tells the brain what is happening in the rest of the body via nerve impulses.

Drugs can disrupt the normal functions of the brain stem and can cause issues with essential things the brain controls: breathing, heart rate, and sleeping. Therefore, overdosing on drugs can lead to permanent damage, coma, and even death because of the interference drugs cause to the brain stem.

Effects of Drug Addiction on the Limbic System

The limbic system is a complex system of brain chemistry, neurons, and brain functions that control emotional responses, good feelings, motivation, and the formation of habits and routines. It provides the brain with good feelings that motivate us to repeat good behaviors for the body, like eating, sleeping, or creating something.

When a person takes drugs that make them feel good, the limbic system becomes confused as the brain releases dopamine and other feel-good chemicals, causing the drug user to continue taking the drugs, reinforcing the habit through this “reward circuit.”

Over time, the brain adapts to the presence of the drug and stops making the chemicals that make them feel good, or the dopamine receptors in the brain are reduced or damaged, making it impossible to feel pleasure without more of the drug. Soon, the drug user will need the substance just to feel normal and will otherwise experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, including physical illness and flu-like symptoms, irritability, unease, anxiety, and intense cravings for the drug. This behavior leads to an uncontrollable addiction.

Effects of Drug Addiction on the Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is the “gray matter” of the brain with four lobes that control specific functions in the body. In humans, the cerebral cortex takes up ¾ of the brain, and chemical messengers in these areas are responsible for everything from sight and hearing to thinking, tasting, and feeling. When a person uses drugs, the balance between the impulses in various brain parts reduces impulse control while simultaneously allowing for compulsive drug seeking and addictive behaviors to develop.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, problem-solving, self-control, and making decisions, is the last part of the brain to mature, usually in a person’s early twenties. This slower development makes teens who use drugs more vulnerable to developing an addiction and to drug overdoses than older adults.

Drug Withdrawal and the Brain

When a person is affected by drug use and addiction to a substance and their brain has become accustomed to having the drug in its system, the brain and body produce harsh physical, mental, and emotional consequences when they try to quit. Withdrawal symptoms are different depending on factors like the length and intensity of the addiction, which substance(s) the person was addicted to, and which method of drug use they were employing.

Drug cravings, distress, depression and anxiety, flu-like symptoms, pain, and other challenging physical symptoms are common, and in the case of alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other severe addictions, withdrawal without medical supervision can become dangerous and even deadly due to the risk of stroke, heart attack, delirium tremens, or seizures.

Healing the Brain with Addiction Treatment

Starting an integrated addiction treatment program as soon as possible will give a person with drug addiction the best chance of healing the brain and regaining their health. Standard therapies for drug abuse and addiction recovery include:

  • Biofeedback or neurofeedback therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

Addiction is a chronic condition that may not ever be “cured” in an individual. Still, it can certainly be treated and managed with proper “brain training” therapy, support, mental health treatment, medication, groups, coping mechanisms, and relapse prevention strategies.

Drug Rehab at Muse Treatment Center in Los Angeles

Muse Addiction Treatment Center in Los Angeles offers drug rehab treatments that include:

Medical detox

Medical care and professional assistance in an integrated detox program that provides medications and treatment to keep patients safe and comfortable as the drugs leave their system and provides therapy, counseling, and groups that help support the patient emotionally. Dual diagnosis programs may also begin at this time for mental health care.

Inpatient Rehabilitation Programs

These programs are customized 30- to 90-day residential rehab addiction recovery programs. The patient stays in the rehab facility full-time, with structured days full of a group and individual therapy and other treatment, along with relapse prevention programs and life skills training. The purpose of inpatient rehab is to ensure the patient has begun to address mental health issues and the underlying causes of addiction while receiving all the medical care they need in a structured sober environment.

Outpatient Rehab

There are diverse types of customizable outpatient rehab programs available at our addiction treatment facility to help people with mild addictions who need a more flexible form of support.

To find out more about what we have to offer at Muse Addiction Treatment Center, please get in touch with us at (800) 426-1818 today. We can help you with detox, rehabilitation, substance use disorders, and help you quit drug use for good.

Addiction,Mental Health,
Josh Chandler
Josh Chandler
After growing up in Chicago and North Carolina, Josh chose to get help with substance use disorder and mental health in California because of the state's reputation for top-tier treatment. There, he found the treatment he needed to achieve more than five years of recovery. He's been in the drug and alcohol addiction rehab industry for four years and now serves as the Director of Admissions for Resurgence Behavioral Health. Josh remains passionate about the field because he understands that one phone call can alter the course of a person's life.

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