How Addiction Changes the Brain

How can addiction be defined? NIDA, which is the National Institute of Drug Abuse has defined addiction as a ‘chronic relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences’. A chronic disease is one that is long lasting and can’t be cured, but it can be managed with treatment. In that sense, addiction is similar to diseases like asthma or diabetes.

The Disease of Addiction

It’s not just NIDA that defines addiction as a disease. The American Medical Association as well as the American Society of Addiction Medicine also define it as a disease.

A disease changes the way an organ functions. This is what addiction does to the brain. It alters the brain on a physiological level. While there is no cure for addiction, it can be managed with evidence based treatments. The management of addiction must be ongoing. Therapies that are used for effective addiction management could include medication, group therapy, counseling and lifestyle changes.

Addiction Alters the Brain

The brain is wired to reward an individual when they do something pleasurable. Activities like eating or exercising releases dopamine in the brain which makes the individual feel good, and encourages them to keep repeating the activity. It teaches the brain to repeat the behavior. Drugs or alcohol act in the very same way, by triggering the rewarding part of the brain. However, drugs have that effect to an extreme extent, and the brain gets rewired in harmful ways.

When an individual takes drugs, their brain releases extreme amounts of dopamine, much more than would be released due to other natural pleasurable behavior. This causes the brain to over react, and reduce dopamine production in an attempt to normalize the sudden high spike created by the drug. This creates a vicious cycle, where the individual feels the urge to take more drugs to compensate for lowered dopamine.

Addiction Causes Behavior Changes

Imaging studies performed on the brains of individuals with a drug addiction show measurable changes in the areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, learning and memory, judgment

and behavior control. It is believed that these changes alter the way the brain works, and this could explain an individual’s destructive and compulsive behaviors. The individual will start seeing changes in their behavior, for example a straight A student might see his grades fall.

Then there are the cravings. An individual will feel constant cravings, and they might be painful. The individual will start seeking out drugs, not considering the consequences. Without the drug, the individual’s body will go into withdrawal, and the body wants to avoid that at all costs.

Ultimately, addiction is not a character flaw or a moral failing. It is a disease, and it should be treated as such, with the right therapy and medication.

At The Villa we have all the information you need about evidence based prevention, treatment and methods of recovery. Call us to find out how we can help.