What are the Effects of Drug Addiction on the Brain?

Substance abuse and addiction have cumulative and profound effects on an individual’s life, body, and mind. Though the experience of addiction tends to vary to an extent from one addict to the next, the constant is that the effects of drug addiction are damaging and extensive, takes many different forms, and serves as symptoms of a disease that require lifelong effort and strength of conviction to recover.

Over the decades, studies have looked at addiction in an effort to better understand how it works, to identify potential causes and factors that could make individuals more susceptible to addiction in the hope of developing more effective treatments for individuals who suffer from physical dependence to alcohol and drugs. It wasn’t long ago that the general consensus of addiction was that addicts were immoral, self-centered and self-serving, weak in character and will and were deserving of punishment for so-called deviant behavior and immorality.

However, we came to realize that incarceration might have forced addicts into abstinence, but the high levels of recidivism and relapse upon release from prison indicated that legal consequences are an insufficient way of eradicating addiction. Despite the threat of jail time and criminal prosecution, addicts continued to display either a lack or disregard of common sense, continuing to abuse alcohol and drugs despite the repercussions. We came to realize that addiction was more a disease of the mind rather than being indicative of immorality and deviance, which meant that addicts required different and more appropriate treatments in order to not only recover from chemical dependency but to avoid the legal consequences that were frequently imposed on those suffering from addiction.

The view of addiction as a chronic relapsing brain disease—called the disease model of addiction—rather than merely being a disease of character seems to have resonated among health and social services experts as well as the population at large as this seems to be the predominant perspective of addiction even today.

In the course of refining the concept of addiction being a disease that requires treatment, there have been numerous studies conducted that sought to identify some of the specific, acute effects that drug addiction has on the brain. However, in order to understand the effects of drug addiction has on the brain, we must first have a brief discussion of the brain itself as well as some of its inner workings.

A Brief Introduction to the Human Brain

Widely (and justifiably) considered the most complex and important organ in the entire body, the human brain is a roughly three-pound mass of “gray matter” that sits atop the spinal column, controlling virtually every single function or activity associated with living. You can get an idea, though at a much smaller scale, of the brain’s role in the human ability to live and function by visualizing the brain as the conductor of a large symphony orchestra, effortlessly directing a number of independent and codependent processes simultaneously.

To distill the brain’s complicated and extensive plethora of duties to a smaller list of the most essential, the brain interprets sensory information—things you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste—and allows you to respond to them accordingly, processes your experiences by allowing you to form thoughts and to catalog your experiences in the form of memories, and regulates all of your body’s functions, from your ability to move to your reflexive functions like breathing and blinking. Many parts of your body can either be replaced or repaired, but without the brain life as we know it is an impossibility.

The brain can be broken down or divided into a number of different parts in several different ways, differentiated by the processes or sets of processes that they control. Although each of the brain’s different components is important in its own way, the parts of the brain that experience some of the most significant effects of drug addiction include the cerebral cortex, the brainstem, and the limbic system.

The different areas of the cerebral cortex—consisting of the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the occipital lobe, and the temporal lobe—simultaneously control things like processing sensory information, our ability to think and solve problems, and the control of other such functioning. The brainstem is responsible for some of the essential functions of the body, which includes ensuring that the heart continues to beat, that we continue to breathe, and allowing us to sleep.

The limbic system of the brain is known for controlling our reward and pleasure centers; this part of the brain allows us to experience pleasure as a result of certain behaviors that are integral to our survival such as eating and having sex, which has the effect of reinforcing those behaviors. However, these parts of the brain and others are artificially activated or altered by the abuse of alcohol and drugs, which can be damaging for many reasons.

The Effects of Drug Addiction on the Brain

One of the primary ways that substance abuse directly affects the brain is by disrupting the brain’s communication system and the normal way that the brain’s nerve cells send, receive, and process information. This is done in one of the two key ways: Either by imitating the neurotransmitters in the brain or by overstimulating the reward circuit in the limbic system of the brain.

Drugs like heroin and marijuana have a chemical structure that is very similar to neurotransmitters, or “chemical messengers,” which tricks the brain and causes nerve cells to begin sending abnormal or irregular signals and results in the user feeling a “high” due to administering the substance. On the other hand, stimulant drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine cause nerve cells to abruptly release an abnormally large amount of neurotransmitters, resulting in the different type of high associated with stimulant drugs due to disrupted communication in the brain that’s been unnaturally amplified.

However, the body begins to compensate accordingly for the changes that the drug causes, which is why the individual begins to require the drug in order to promote even normal levels of functioning while needing to continually increase the amount of the drug that’s administered to achieve the same effects.

A constant among most drugs is their tendency to target the brain’s reward system by triggering an unnatural spike in dopamine levels. Dopamine is neurotransmitter present in areas of the brain associated with controlling movement, emotion and motivation, and pleasure. The spike in dopamine is associated with the euphoria that users feel as part of a drug high, but the pleasure experienced upon administering the drug reinforces the behavior and teaches individuals that they can continue to feel these pleasant feelings by continuing to abuse the substance.

Meanwhile, the brain begins to adapt to surges in dopamine levels by adjusting its natural production of dopamine accordingly, producing less and less dopamine on its own and resulting in a dopamine deficiency—and withdrawal symptoms—if an individual goes a certain amount of time without re-administering the drug.

In addition to the changes mentioned above, long-term effects of drug addiction have been implicated with impairment in areas of the brain associated with decision-making, impulse and behavior control, learning and memory, and judgment. Collectively, each of these individual effects of drug addiction compounds the addictiveness of substances with their abuse reinforcing an individual’s dependency by affecting more and more essential functions and systems in the brain.

Although addiction is a chronic disease, it can be treated with an effective addiction recovery program. If you or someone you love is currently suffering from addiction to alcohol or drugs, call Drug Treatment Center Finder today. Our caring specialists have helped many addicts to begin their recovery journeys by matching them to the programs that best address their individual needs.

Staff Writer :