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The Brain on Drugs: From the Reward System in the Brain to Addiction

A woman drinking by herself to try to make herself feel better.
Parts of the brain are responsible for triggering the “reward” neurotransmitter called dopamine that helps you feel good.

The pleasure we feel from a tasty food, a sexual experience or a surprise gift comes from what has been coined the “reward center” of the brain. However, there isn’t actually a tiny round center of the brain responsible for making us feel good. Rather, the brain’s reward system is comprised of a range of structures that work together to decide what is rewarding enough to repeat and turn into a habit.

Unfortunately, this system doesn’t discriminate between what is good for us –like enjoying time with a friend –and what is bad for us –like substance abuse. The reward system of the brain is how one drink or a single time getting high can lead to undeniable cravings and a compulsive addiction.

What Structures Make up the Reward System of the Brain?

The brain is certainly no easy topic to understand –and probably not something you’ll be an expert in after reading a single blog post! So, when we talk about the reward center of the brain, it’s easier to think of it as a well-oiled machine that requires many different parts to make it run.

These various parts include the following structures of the brain:

  • The Striatum – The striatum is a nucleus in the basil ganglia that plays a critical role in reward perception, motivation, reinforcement, planning and decision-making. This part of the brain is what immediately tells you to repeat or stay away from a stimulus.
  • The Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) – The VTA is located in the midbrain and is one of the two major areas in the brain that produces the neurotransmitter called dopamine.
  • The Nucleus Accumbens – The nucleus accumbens is a part of the striatum in the basal forebrain. It receives dopamine neurons from the VAT, processes them and motivates behaviors.
  • The Amygdala – The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped grouping of neurons located in the medial temporal lobe. Its key responsibility is the processing of emotions.
  • The Hippocampus – The hippocampus is known as the brain’s learning and memory center, responsible for declarative memory formation and critical for learning and emotions.
  • The Prefrontal Cortex – The prefrontal cortex is located in the front part of the frontal lobe. It plays a key role in decision making, cognitive behaviors and reasoning.

In the case of addiction, substance abuse triggers a rush of dopamine that powers all of these different parts of the reward center of the brain.

How Does the Reward System of the Brain Work?

In a way, dopamine “turns on” all these different parts of the reward center of the brain. These structures are responsible for telling your brain if the stimulus is pleasurable, if declarative memories should be created about the pleasure and whether or not the brain should be motivated by the stimulus in the future.

When you drink alcohol or get high on opioids, your substance use floods the VAT with increased levels of dopamine. These dopamine neurons are then communicated to the nucleus accumbens and the striatum in general to process the pleasure felt from the substance.

After these initial interactions, dopamine then impacts other regions of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus. The greater the amount of dopamine in the striatum, the more likely the prefrontal cortex is to define the substance as rewarding and a decision worth making again.

Dopamine will then strengthen synapses (how neurons pass messages from one part of the brain to the next) in the hippocampus to improve learning and memory. As a result, the brain learns that the substance abuse led to a positive experience that should be remembered and repeated. As the hippocampus is undergoing these changes, the amygdala associates positive emotions with the substance, supporting what the hippocampus has learned and enabling the prefrontal cortex in its decision making to seek the substance again.

The brain structures go through the same process for any stimulus, which is why we gravitate toward the same types of desserts and activities. The problem is substance abuse leads to unnaturally high levels of dopamine activity in the brain’s reward system, changing how these structures work and leaving them unable to function normally without substance abuse.

Fortunately, addiction treatment can help the brain’s reward system heal from the effects of substance abuse. Your brain will be able to return to a natural state where you desire healthy foods, time with loved ones and exercise instead of alcohol or drugs.

Get Evidence-Based Treatment to Help Your Brain Heal After Addiction

At The Raleigh House, we have over 10 years of experience helping people just like you overcome their addictions and return to fulfilling, sober lives. Leveraging an “east to west” approach to treatment that involves both evidence-based treatments and experiential therapies, we can help you rebalance the reward center of your brain and develop new routines to avoid triggers and manage cravings.

If you’re ready to find lasting recovery from addiction, don’t wait another minute. Contact our admissions team today to learn how to get started.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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