How Addiction Affects the Brain?

Addiction affects the brain’s chemicals, mainly dopamine, by interfering with how neurons send and receive signals via neurotransmitters. This can make it difficult to stop and result in permanent brain changes. However, understanding how addiction affects the brain can provide a starting point for treatment and recovery.

How Does the Brain Work?

The brain is a very complex organ comprised of millions of cells called neurons that process information from the rest of our bodies. These neurons communicate using small signaling molecules called neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine, that bind to receptors expressed in the area between neurons called the synapse. 

When they bind to receptors, these neurotransmitters trigger electrical impulses through the neuron to tell it which neurotransmitters to send to the next neuron. Typically, neurotransmitters exist in a delicate balance, though this balance can be disrupted for several reasons. 

Drugs and the Brain – Chemical Changes

The general action of drugs is to alter neurotransmitter signaling in the brain. This is done by releasing large amounts of neurotransmitters, mimicking their function, or impacting receptor binding. 

The effects a person experiences depend on the type of drug used. For example, some drugs increase neurotransmitters that make a person feel happy. Others may mimic neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, that result in a calm feeling, reducing stress and anxiety. 

Certain drugs can make it easier for a receptor to bind neurotransmitters. This allows fewer molecules to have a more significant effect. But, no matter how it’s accomplished, in the end, the brain receives more signals and responds accordingly.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

The brain rarely distinguishes between signals triggered by neurotransmitters it produces and those triggered by drugs. Because of this, the brain tries to compensate for the drug’s effect by altering the level of neurotransmitters produced or the number of receptors available to restore balance. If a drug is used only once or twice at low levels, the brain can easily return to its previous levels. However, with long-term or high-level use, the changes in the brain become longer-lasting and lead to addiction. 

If a drug constantly stimulates a specific receptor, the brain will start by producing lower levels of the neurotransmitter that usually binds to that receptor. This results in requiring more of a drug to achieve the same effect. If the drugs were to be stopped, the body wouldn’t initially be able to produce enough neurotransmitters on its own. 

As the drug use continues, the receptors are still being overstimulated, and the brain decreases the number of receptors, increasing the amount of drug needed even further. Stopping drug use can result in significantly impaired function since the brain now struggles to get appropriate levels of stimulation. These changes are part of what drives addiction and the loss of control over drug use. 

Drugs and Pleasure – the Brain Connection

Some of the neurotransmitters most commonly affected by addictive drugs are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and other so-called “pleasure chemicals.” These neurotransmitters make you feel good after doing something you enjoy, such as running or playing a game, or something necessary for life, such as eating. It’s thought that this system evolved to motivate us to survive using pleasure as a reward. Still, humans have found other ways to trigger this system, including using drugs. 

How Does Dopamine Reinforce Drug Use?

Drug use can substantially increase dopamine levels in the brain in a concise time. Because producing dopamine reinforces beneficial actions, the brain quickly learns to associate drugs with pleasure. It will seek to continue receiving that reward. Unfortunately, it also leads to associations between people, environments, and objects related to drug use and the pleasure received from drugs, creating cravings whenever these things are encountered. 

This drives a person to want to use drugs more and more to get that pleasure, contributing to the development of addiction.

Why Are Drugs More Addictive Than The Body’s Natural Rewards?

The dopamine and endorphins released by drugs are typically much higher than the rewards received naturally. In addition to creating stronger reinforcements between drugs and pleasure, it also prompts the brain to adjust to maintain balance. As previously discussed, this means fewer neurotransmitters are produced and fewer receptors are expressed. 

Over time, the brain’s ability to recognize the level of dopamine released by naturally rewarded behaviors decreases. It also requires increasing levels of drugs to get the same level of pleasure, creating a vicious cycle until the brain can no longer adapt and other functions become impaired. 

Finding Treatment for Drug Addiction

While there is still a social stigma surrounding drug addiction and other mental health treatments, it’s important to find treatment rather than trying to do it alone. Withdrawal symptoms can make it much more challenging to quit using without help. Depending on the length and level of drug use, you may need additional medical care to manage the long-term effects of drug addiction or a mental health condition co-occurring. 

Rehab facilities like NYC Addiction Resources are great places to seek treatment. They offer teams of specialists that can design treatment plans to manage withdrawal and address long-term side effects of addiction through an inpatient program to provide you with the best start to recovery. Rehabs also offer support after your initial treatment to help maintain your sobriety. They can help you find a recovery support group that best suits your needs when seeking long-term recovery.

Effective treatment options are available if you or a loved one are struggling with drug addiction. The first step is to look for those who can help. Call or reach out to NYC Addiction Resources today.