Hijacking Your Brain: The Effects of Addiction

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Weighing in at three pounds, the human brain is the most complex organ found in the human body. Consists of nerves, neurons, synapses and grey and white matter, the brain is in complete control of how we function on a daily basis. In order for us to breathe, to drive a car, to shoot a basketball, to enjoy a meal or to enjoy the simple things in life–we need our brain to function at its’ best. In short, we rely on our brain to do everything–to preform basic life functions, to interpret and respond to everything we experience in our environment and to help shape our thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

The human brain can be thought of as comprising of many parts that work together. These different parts are responsible for different functions that are essential for our well-being and protection. When we are under the influence of and become addicted to drugs and alcohol, it significantly impacts essential life functions and changes the ways in which we act, perform tasks and can reinforce those behaviors that will perpetuate substance use to the point that we become addicted to those substances. The effects of addiction on the brain can be devastating and potentially life-threatening. Is in important to understand the ways in which drugs and alcohol hijack the brain.

How Do We Get From Liking Drugs to Wanting Drugs?

man stressed from drug addiction

For those who develop a substance abuse problem, they didn’t set out to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. People who gravitate towards substance do so for a number of reasons, but no matter what the reason many become trapped and get caught in a cycle of abuse that becomes more pronounced as they cross the line from casual use to dependence and into abuse. Currently, it is estimated that 23.2 million people in the United States are addicted to drugs and alcohol. In layman’s terms, one in every ten Americans is struggling with substance abuse addiction. While the causes of addiction are complex and involve various biological, social, psychological and environmental factors, the effects of addiction have common pathways.

Understanding the Pleasure Principle

The brain registers all pleasures, in the same way, regardless of its source. Whether we take a drug, eat a great meal or are engaged in another pleasurable encounter, our brains release the neurotransmitter dopamine to the part of our brain called the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is a cluster of nerve cells which are found underneath the cerebral cortex. This area of the brain is often called the “pleasure center”. Drugs and alcohol flood this important brain structure with large amounts of dopamine.

The likelihood that the use of a certain drug will lead to addictive behavior has a direct correlation to the speed with which it promotes dopamine release, as well as the intensity and reliability of that release. Becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol is also linked to the method in which a person administers that substance. For example, if an individual smokes a drug or injects a substance intravenously, it will produce a faster and stronger dopamine response as opposed to taking the drug orally in pill or capsule form.

The “Learning Process” of Addiction

Dopamine not only contributes how we experience pleasure, it also plays a huge role in how we learn and remember, which are  key elements in how people transition from simply liking something to becoming addicted to that experience. According to current addiction theory models, dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter called glutamate and it overtakes the brain and its reward-related learning system. This rewards-based system of how we learn is important in sustaining life because it links essential activities such as eating and sex that are mandatory for our survival as a species.

Additionally, this reward circuit in the brain includes areas involved with motivation and memory. Drugs and alcohol stimulate the same circuit and then overload it. Repeated exposure to these addictive substances  causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, in turn driving us to go after it. That is, this process motivates us to take action to seek out the source of pleasure.

The Buildup of Tolerance

With repeated use, the brain will eventually adapt to the addictive substance, and the effects of substances on the brain will become less pleasurable. Drugs and alcohol produce surges of dopamine that are 2 to 10 times more than what is produced by natural rewards. Since the brain is not well-equipped to withstand the intensity and concentration of these dopamine surges, it responds by producing less dopamine naturally–as a result, dopamine has less of an effect on the brain’s reward centers. In order to feel the same levels of euphoria and pleasure that were felt early on–users need to take more of the substance. This phenomenon is known as tolerance.

Wanting to recreate the rush of wonderful feelings, users become compulsive in their substance use–even though the actual pleasure associated with taking drugs or alcohol has subsided. It is during this phase that other brain structures come into play. The hippocampus and amygdala store information regarding the environmental cues that are associated with substance use. The connections and memories between use and the settings in which drug use occurs become reinforced, and these bonds create intense cravings which lead to continued use of substances.

You Can Break the Cycle of Addiction With Help From Ocean Breeze Recovery Center

Drug addiction is a complex disease which is slow to develop but has devastating effects for those addicted and their loved ones. If you are struggling with the effects of addiction, you need the help and support that a quality drug treatment center can provide. As one of the premier drug rehabs in the state of Florida, Ocean Breeze Recovery Center features a wide variety of treatment programming, individualized treatment plans and expert care that will give you the best chance at beating your addiction–which will allow you to live a healthier and happier life.

Don’t wait another minute–call Ocean Breeze Recovery Center today and start your recovery journey.


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