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How Drugs and Alcohol Change the Brain

3D model representing the effects of addiction on the brain
Drug addiction changes how the brain responds to dopamine.

Drug addiction works by chemically altering the brain’s structure so that it becomes programmed to depend on a substance of abuse. Over time, the brain demands increasing amounts of this substance, and users may soon find that they must prioritize their drug use above all else. In basic terms, this process explains why some people become addicted to drugs or alcohol. But, what’s really going on with addiction and the brain? Stay with us, and you’ll find out. And, we promise you won’t need a PHD to comprehend it

Addiction and the Brain

Understanding how drug and alcohol addiction works is easy if you know a little bit about how the brain responds to pleasure. Here’s what you need to know:

Certain activities or events cause a chemical called dopamine to be released in the brain. These activities include things like chowing down on our favorite foods, exercising, playing video games or even earning a big promotion at work. Basically, anything that brings us pleasure or makes us feel good triggers the release of dopamine. As far as our brains are concerned, the activity itself doesn’t matter.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

The Raleigh House Responds: The long-term effects of drug addiction on the brain include psychological disorders like clinical depression and anxiety as well as changes to the way it produces and responds to the neurotransmitter, dopamine.


Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs?

Drinking alcohol or using recreational drugs also causes the brain to release dopamine. But, unlike the dopamine release that comes with exercising, drugs trigger a supercharged, near-immediate rush of dopamine that the brain quickly latches onto and remembers. In a relatively short time, our brains actually “re-wire” themselves to classify the substance as something it needs, like food or water. This is why drug addiction is so difficult to treat, and why it’s not simply a choice. On top of this, some people are actually genetically predisposed to drug addiction. Learn more about how your genetics affect your risk of addiction.

Why are Some Drugs More Addictive than Others?

When it comes to addiction, some drugs are more addictive than others. For example, drugs like heroin and nicotine are both highly addictive, while drugs like MDMA (ecstasy, Molly) are comparatively less addictive.* So, what makes one drug more addictive than another? Basically, it boils down to three factors:

  1. How quickly the drug promotes dopamine release
  2. How much dopamine the drug triggers to be released
  3. How reliably the drug causes the release of dopamine

*Note: While MDMA is less addictive than other drugs, it is still possible to develop an addiction.

Addiction is a Chronic Brain Disorder

Public understanding of drug and alcohol addiction has improved over the decades, but it still has a long way to go. Many people mistakenly believe that drug addiction is a choice or that it indicates a lack of willpower on behalf of the victim. Not only is this belief simply inaccurate, it’s also dangerous because it marginalizes and stigmatizes individuals who legitimately need help. If you or someone you care about is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, we are here to help.

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