The Addict Brain – Science of Addiction
Over 24 million people over the age of 12 are addicted to alcohol. Over 20 million Americans suffer from a drug addiction of some type. Addiction is a serious issue that costs hundreds of billions of dollars per year in related costs, lost work productivity, and health care expenses. Much research has been done to quantify addiction and the damage it causes, but new studies on the process of addiction that challenge our perceptions of addiction and people suffering from addiction are expanding our understanding of the process and the problems.
A Matter of Brain Chemistry
Addiction to drugs and alcohol is specifically related to brain chemistry. The brains of people suffering from some forms of prolonged drug abuse show changes in the brain structure and function of the brain itself, making addiction a fundamental brain disease. Through this understanding, we have come to realize that addiction must be approached more like other chronic illnesses if we hope to help people.
Addiction hijacks normal chemical responses in the brain that humans have instinctively relied on to keep themselves healthy and happy.
Dopamine and You
Part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area releases a chemical messenger called Dopamine to a higher region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is part of the “reward circuit’ of the brain and deals with emotions and motivation. The surge of dopamine brings pleasure and excitement, rewarding us and making us want to go do whatever triggered the response again.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It helps regulate movement and emotional responses, enabling us to not only see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. It creates feelings of pleasure that our brains associate with necessary actions such as eating, because brains are conditioned to expect the dopamine rush that accompanies them. This system tells the brain what is important and what to focus on in order to survive.
The presence of certain kinds of dopamine receptors has been found to be associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as “risk takers. Dopamine deficiency is also considered a risk factor for addiction and people with low dopamine activity are more prone to addiction than those with normal levels.
Addiction to drugs can be very tough to conquer specifically because many of these drugs increase levels of naturally-occurring dopamine, acting as reward reinforcement. The pleasure sensations the brain gets when dopamine levels are abnormally high creates the motivation for us to keep seeking pleasure, starting the cycle. Some addictive drugs increase the levels of dopamine in the brain by up to 5-10X. When these levels are elevated, the user’s brain associates the drug with a neurochemical reward. Drugs act as a reinforcing signal. Through the brain’s instinctive memory conditioning, it will then desire that particular drug in the hopes that it can reward itself with the pleasure effect that dopamine offers. It motivates the user to keep seeking the drug for the reward.
Over time, the brain becomes conditioned to expect artificially high levels of the neurotransmitter and builds a tolerance to the artificially elevated levels. The brain is then conditioned to require more dopamine than it can produce naturally and the user becomes dependent on the drug. Brain connections are rewired to adapt to the presence of the drug, and many of these changes are permanent. Some drugs even kill natural neurons that can’t be replaced, forcing the user to live with damage that can’t be reversed.
The long-lasting brain changes make it challenging for addicts to stay drug free. They can experience intense cravings that can lead to relapse for years. These cravings increase during times of stress or hardship, which is part of what makes quitting so hard.
Research on the brain shows that addiction is related to powerful memories, enhanced by the dopamine. Recovery is a slow process in which the influence of those memories are diminished. This is a process that continues for the rest of addict’s life and contributes to any relapses.
Fighting addiction is about transforming the mind and creating new experiences for the brain to register as important or pleasurable. This is particularly challenging due to the nature of the brain’s conditioning thanks to the drugs, and the permanent changes within the brain.
There are plenty of behavioral therapy options available for people attempting to recover from drug addiction. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is used to help people in recovery to address problematic thoughts or feelings that can lead to a relapse. It’s also useful in treating any other conditions the recovering addict might have that contribute to their addiction, such as obsessive compulsive disorder.
Holistic therapy has also proven beneficial to people in recovery. Holistic therapy focuses on the individual’s overall well-being while treating the physical symptoms of withdrawal. Holistic therapies may include yoga, acupuncture, art therapy, guided meditation, proper nutrition, exercise, massage therapy, and other therapies that focus on the physical and emotional well-being of the recovering addict, creating positive experiences and teaching them how to make healthier choices. Holistic therapy promotes physical and emotional fitness in an effort to give the person in recovery the tools to fight their own cravings and improve themselves physically and emotionally.
Much of holistic therapy centers around relieving stress and building positive connections with themselves and others. The philosophy behind holistic therapy lies in finding and maintaining balance in all aspects of life.
There are other techniques for helping people to recover from drug addiction as well, and a good treatment center can tailor their programs to the needs of individuals for optimal outcomes.
If you or someone you care about has an issue with drug or alcohol addiction, there is hope. Let our knowledgeable professionals assist with setting achievable goals and starting on a healthier life path.