How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

Most people who take their pain medicine as directed by their doctor do not become addicted, even if they take the medicine for a long time. Fears about addiction should not prevent you from using narcotics to relieve your pain, but it’s smart to use caution. If your parents or siblings have problems with alcohol or drugs, you’re more likely as well. Your brain is wired to make you want to repeat experiences that make you feel good. The information on this website is not intended to be a substitute for, or to be relied upon as, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or qualified health provider with questions regarding a medical condition.

Dopamine is responsible for feelings of motivation, pleasure, and reward — and alcohol, prescription medications, and illegal drugs all hijack this pathway. If you or a loved one is suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, you’ll have noticed a shift in priorities. Illicit drugs’ chemical compounds rewire brain chemistry and push for the need to feed on more drug use.

Which Drugs Cause Long-Term Damage to Your Brain?

They can figure out how to improve brain activity, reducing the effects of addiction and unhealthy impulses. Some drugs like opioids also disrupt other parts of the brain, such as the brain stem, which controls basic functions critical to life, including heart rate, breathing, and sleeping. This interference explains why overdoses can cause depressed breathing and death. To treat addiction, scientists have identified several medications and behavioral therapies—especially when used in combination—that can help people stop using specific substances and prevent relapse. Unfortunately, no medications are yet available to treat addiction to stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine, but behavioral therapies can help.

Is addiction a mental state?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) drug addiction is classified as a mental illness because addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person's normal hierarchy of needs and desires, and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using drugs.

About one-third, they found, showed no decision-making impairment on the gambling task. About 25 percent, in contrast, responded exactly as patients with frontal lobe damage have been shown to do, almost invariably choosing a higher immediate reward even knowing that their strategy would be unprofitable in the long run. Finally, about 40 percent of Bechara’s study participants appeared to be hypersensitive to potential rewards–no matter whether they were immediate or long-term. Recent research shows that drug abuse alters cognitive activities such as decision-making and inhibition, likely setting the stage for addiction and relapse.

What is the difference between substance use disorder and addiction?

Cocaine, for example, imitates dopamine so well that it can bind to the transporter and block dopamine re-uptake. Amphetamines reverse the transporter’s normal function, preventing re-uptake while also using the transporter to pump additional dopamine into the synapse from the presynaptic cell. When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they feel a sense of comfort they haven’t been able to get elsewhere. Inevitably, this feeling is replaced by guilt and shame as they sober up and face the consequences of their actions.

Is addiction a brain disease?

The American Society Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines Addiction as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.

Within seconds to minutes of entering the body, drugs cause dramatic changes to synapses in the brain. By activating the brain’s reward circuitry, drugs deliver a jolt of intense pleasure. Addictive drugs provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine.

Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health

They have to take more of it to obtain the same dopamine “high” because their brains have adapted—an effect known as tolerance. For the brain, the difference between normal rewards and drug rewards can be likened to the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain of someone who misuses drugs adjusts by producing fewer neurotransmitters in the reward circuit, or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. As a result, the person’s ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding (i.e., reinforcing) activities is also reduced.

The risk of addiction and how fast you become addicted varies by drug. Some drugs, such as opioid painkillers, have a higher risk and cause addiction more quickly than others. If these reward pathways of the brain continue to be altered due to repeated drug use, effects on a young person’s wellbeing can be overwhelming and long-lasting. But in teens, the protective properties of myelin haven’t been fully developed, so they receive more intense messages. When teens experience pleasure, that sensation is more intense in their brain than in the brain of an adult.

The brain is still malleable, and highly capable of absorbing new things. As seen in the example above, knowledge that is obtained and emphasized from ages 13 to 25 will be strengthened and retained for the future. As a parent, it is important to ensure your teen is gaining positive learning experiences, because what he or she learns now will shape his/her success down the road. We often hear from teenagers (and parents) who justify early drug use as an experimental phase.

It does this by switching on brain circuits that make you feel wonderful, which then motivates you to repeat those behaviors. In contrast, when you’re in danger, a healthy brain pushes your body to react quickly with fear or alarm, so you’ll get out of harm’s way. If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating ice cream before dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the front regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions. NIH-funded scientists are working to learn more about the biology of addiction. They’ve shown that addiction is a long-lasting and complex brain disease, and that current treatments can help people control their addictions.