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The Neurobiology of Addiction: How Substance Abuse Impacts the Brain

A man talking with a doctor about brain health.
There have been significant breakthroughs within the last 50 years about how the brain is affected by alcohol and drug use.

The human brain is a powerful and impressive organ responsible for all functions of the body. Without all its different structures and its billions of neurons, we would not be able to breathe, make decisions, eat or even love.

Your brain makes you who you are and runs like a finely calibrated machine without you even realizing it. Unfortunately, even high functioning machines are susceptible to outside influences. Dangerous and manipulative drugs like alcohol, heroin and meth can actually change the structure of your brain, effectively limiting your health and well-being.

In this blog, we’ll dive into the neurobiology of addiction to help you better understand how your substance abuse affects your brain and ultimately affects your ability to live your very best life.

The Role Dopamine Plays in Addiction

How Dopamine Works Naturally in Your Brain

What do you do after you take a bite of a delicious, mouth-watering slice of pizza? The obvious answer is you take another bite, then a third and a fourth. You then proceed to help yourself to a second slice, since you enjoyed the first one so much.

These behaviors are a result of a neurotransmitter in your brain called dopamine. A neurotransmitter is a chemical created by your brain’s neurons that communicates messages across all parts of your brain and between your brain and body. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters in your brain’s reward system.

When you took a bite of that fresh, cheesy pizza, a surge of dopamine was triggered within the reward system of your brain to indicate that you enjoyed the pizza and should continue eating it.

How Substance Abuse Impacts Your Brain’s Pleasure Response

Unfortunately, your brain’s ability to naturally produce dopamine and manage pleasure responses can be disrupted by alcohol and drug abuse. Drugs like alcohol and opioids attach to dopamine receptors in your brain. This causes neurons to release too much dopamine, triggering euphoria and the high you experience.

As great as this pleasure surge might feel, your brain is quickly changing behind the scenes. It loses its ability to help you feel good naturally, growing reliant on alcohol or drug use in order to help you feel balanced.

Your brain builds a tolerance to your substance use, requiring higher and higher doses over time in order to feel the same euphoric effects as the first time you drank or got high. Your brain also begins to associate your environment with drinking or getting high. Like a Pavlovian response, your brain starts to identify bars or other people using drugs as cues that spark cravings for alcohol or drugs.

Ongoing Research in the Neurobiology of Addiction

In order to understand addiction more fully, you have to go beyond your understanding of how dopamine works. Researchers have used a three-stage model of addiction to try to get a better grasp of how occasional drug use turns into a compulsive addiction. These stages include:

Binge intoxication – At this stage, an individual experiences the rewarding and euphoric effects of alcohol or drug use.
Withdrawal/negative affect – This stage is when the individual experiences a negative emotional state because they aren’t drinking or getting high.
Preoccupation/anticipation – Due to the negative withdrawal symptoms from the earlier stage, the individual seeks alcohol or drugs again in order to feel the effects of the binge intoxication stage.

Using this model and results from both animal and human models, current research has found that there are three key neurobiological circuits involved in the changes associated with the development of a substance abuse disorder:

1. The Basil Ganglia. The basal ganglia and its two regions, the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal striatum, play the largest role in the binge intoxication stage of addiction. The neurocircuitry in the nucleus accumbens, alongside dopamine and opioid receptors, trigger the rewarding effects of substance abuse. The dorsal striatum then acts as the “habit circuitry” that leads to the compulsive substance abuse in addiction.

2. The Extended Amygdala. During the withdrawal/negative affect stage is when there is decreased function in the basil ganglia and increased activity in the extended amygdala. The stress neurotransmitters in the amygdala are what trigger uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, causing the individual to seek more alcohol or drugs.

3. The Prefrontal Cortex. The preoccupation/anticipation stage of addiction is when executive functioning within the prefrontal cortex – thoughts, decision making, task prioritization – is interrupted by cravings. Substance-seeking behavior triggers increased activity in the “Go” circuits of the prefrontal cortex. This then activates neurotransmitters in the basil ganglia, which begins the cycle of addiction over again.

This model and continued research has helped researchers and addiction treatment experts like The Raleigh House understand addiction behaviors and develop solutions that can best help those struggling with addiction to recover.

How The Raleigh House Can Help Your Brain Heal from Addiction

At The Raleigh House, we understand how addiction has affected your brain and trapped you in a vicious cycle of substance abuse. That’s why we take what we call an “east to west” approach to treatment that involves both evidence-based treatments and experiential therapies.

We use evidence-based techniques like medication-assisted treatments, individual therapy and nutrition and amino acids to help heal and recondition your brain, so that it can get back to managing neurotransmitter production naturally again. Our experiential therapies like equine therapy and rock-climbing help improve your emotional and physical well-being, reminding your brain what it’s like to feel good and happy without alcohol or drugs.

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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