A person’s brain is the most complex organ in their body. It controls every aspect of a person’s functioning. Thinking, breathing, moving, and feeling are all connected to signals from the brain. From the most intricate tasks to the most basic behaviors we do not even have to think about, the brain shapes how we see and interpret the world around us. When someone suffers from the disease of addiction, it impacts the brain, it’s functioning, and thus the thinking of the individual afflicted.
Your brain is essentially your identity. Even when you are asleep, your brain is constantly working. It is comprised of multiple parts that all serve a purpose in order to help you function. When substances are introduced to the body, the brain can be profoundly impacted, impairing it from performing some of its most basic functions. Over time, substance abuse can fundamentally change how the brain works, causing a person to feel completely dependent on drugs or alcohol to feel “normal”. When use stops, they experience negative side effects that encourage them to keep using, even if the consequences of use are negatively impacting their lives as well.
Substance abuse primarily affects three areas of your brain:
- Brain stem: The brain stem is responsible for all of the functions that keeps you alive, including breathing and moving. It is also connected to your spinal cord, informing the brain of what is happening in the body.
- Limbic system: The limbic system is the name for several areas of the brain responsible for emotional responses. It is what is responsible for “feel good” feelings that motivate us to repeat behaviors that create pleasure.
- Cerebral cortex: The cerebral cortex makes up the largest part of the brain and is divided into four lobes, or areas, that are responsible for specific functions. It is responsible for our senses, our ability to think, process information, and make decisions.
The brain is constantly working, sending and receiving signals all throughout the body. When drugs or alcohol are introduced, they impact the way information is communicated through the body. Depending on the type of substance used, they may imitate the way the brain sends signals, or they may overstimulate the brain’s reward system. Both can make the brain send abnormal signals throughout the body.
Understanding The Effect of Addiction on the Brain
In most cases, using drugs or alcohol can have an impact on the reward system in the brain. Under normal circumstances, the limbic system responds to things like eating or intimacy by releasing dopamine, the chemical in the brain that makes us repeat behaviors that make us feel good. When drugs enter the system, they release large amounts of dopamine into the system, essentially hijacking the process. Because of this, the brain now responds to cues or triggers associated with substance use by releasing dopamine. This is what motivates a person to continue using. Dopamine no longer is the source of pleasure; the substance is, and dopamine is what motivates a person to use again.
Using drugs trains the brain to operate differently than it normally would. Our reward system in the brain is designed to make us repeat behaviors that enable survival, but with the introduction of drugs in the system, they effectively make substance abuse correlate to survival. It becomes a behavior that is essential to continue on. This pattern is not sustainable, however, as the brain eventually adjusts to its new normal. The feelings begin to diminish and do not provide the same effects they once did. Tolerance develops and the brain now needs larger doses in order to achieve the same desired outcome. This cycle is what leads to chronic substance abuse and addiction.
Because substance abuse hijacks the way the brain operates, functions the brain performs adjust to meet the need for drugs or alcohol. Many symptoms of substance abuse can be attributed to its impact on the cerebral cortex. Poor decision-making, the ability to think things through before acting, and sensory disassociation are all symptoms often associated with substance abuse. These changes in functioning can fundamentally impact the way a person interacts with the world around them, further fueling their addiction and causing it to spiral.
Continued use of drugs or alcohol can lead to dramatic changes in the structure of the brain. Some are short-term while others can linger even long after use has stopped. Addiction is a chronic condition that can fundamentally change the way a person thinks and behaves. While treatment can address a significant amount of this, depending on the type of substance abused and the duration of use, some side effects are irreversible. Meaningful change often requires long-term treatment and care in order to create impactful change.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, we are here to help. Give us a call at 888.855.6877 or send us a message below and one of our admissions counselors will do their best to get you the help you need.