What Does Addiction do to the Brain?

There are many different views about addiction. Some believe it is an entirely spiritual sickness while others believe it is entirely mental and physical. Regardless of the spiritual and mental components that propel one into addiction, one thing is true: addiction makes major changes to the brain that cause an individual to become completely powerless over substances.
The brain is complex and composed of a variety of chemicals responsible for emotions, mood, behavior, and bodily functions. Drugs change the brain’s chemistry by affecting and interfering with the neural communication. Drugs such as heroin mimic natural neurons in the brain. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, “Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being transmitted through the network. Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals. This disruption produces a greatly amplified message, ultimately disrupting communication channels.” Overtime, substances can alter the brain’s ability to function normally.
Addiction arises from an interplay between various brain systems, including the reward pathway. A 2011 Harvard Mental Health letter explains, “Addictive drugs provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The hippocampus lays down memories of this rapid sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli.” Addictive drugs can cause the brain to release 2 to 10 more dopamine than the brain would release naturally, causing an individual’s brain to begin adapting to the dopamine surges.
Tolerance often develops, leading an individual to take more and more of the drug to feel the same effects. Harvard Medical School explains, “As a result of these adaptations, dopamine has less impact on the brain’s reward center. People who develop an addiction typically find that, in time, the desired substance no longer gives them as much pleasure. They have to take more of it to obtain the same dopamine “high” because their brains have adapted — an effect known as tolerance. At this point, compulsion takes over. The pleasure associated with an addictive drug or behavior subsides — and yet the memory of the desired effect and the need to recreate it (the wanting) persists. It’s as though the normal machinery of motivation is no longer functioning.” These brain changes make it extremely difficult for one to break the habit of compulsive and chronic drugs use.

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