Understanding Addiction: How Does It Work in the Brain?

In a person who becomes addicted, brain receptors are overwhelmed. The brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors, an adaptation similar to lowering the volume of a speaker when the noise becomes too loud. Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals through neurotransmitters. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure resembles that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body.

This allows drugs to attach to neurons and activate them. Although these drugs mimic brain chemicals, they don't activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter and cause abnormal messages to be sent over the network. Addiction affects the brain on many levels. Chemical compounds in stimulants, nicotine, opioids, alcohol and sedatives enter the brain and bloodstream after use.

Once a chemical enters the brain, it can cause people to lose control of their impulses or want to consume a harmful substance. After repeated drug use, the brain begins to adapt to dopamine surges. Neurons may begin to reduce the number of dopamine receptors or simply produce less dopamine. The result is less dopamine signaling in the brain, such as lowering the volume of the dopamine signal. Because some drugs are toxic, some neurons can also die.

Substance use disorders result from changes in the brain that can occur with repeated use of alcohol or drugs. The most serious expression of the disorder, addiction, is associated with changes in the function of brain circuits involved in pleasure (the reward system), learning, stress, decision-making and self-control. These scans show us that several different regions and pathways within the brain are affected by addiction. From an increase in neurotransmitters such as dopamine to reduced or increased activity in certain regions of the brain, addiction has a direct impact on the structure, functioning and health of the brain. It has a lot to do with brain chemistry.

The human brain is programmed to reward us when we do something pleasant. Exercise, eating and other behaviors that are directly related to our survival trigger the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. However, glutamate exerts its effects, it plays an increasingly prominent role in the history of addiction. Addictive drugs take over amygdala and hippocampal cells to build intense emotional memories of drug experiences. These memories link the powerful pleasures of drug addicts to people, places, and the paraphernalia associated with them.

From then on, these associations can by themselves trigger cravings. In fact, one way that alcohol and drug treatment programs help users abstain is by trying to break these associations, creating a new social circle and new, supportive and abstinent friends, as a substitute for their former drinking buddies or drug users. Chronic overstimulation of the brain (such as that which occurs in addiction) interferes with maintaining this balance (homeostasis). When the brain has difficulty maintaining homeostatic balance, the wonderfully adaptive brain makes adjustments. It does this by creating a new balanced set point.

The creation of a new equilibrium is called allostasis. As the National Geographic article “The Addicted Brain” states, “Addiction reshapes neural circuits to assign supreme value to cocaine, heroin or gin, at the expense of other interests such as health, work, family or life itself. The longer the addiction continues, the more deeply entrenched it becomes, changing neural pathways and making recovery difficult. Although addiction can manifest itself in many different ways, from physical changes to behavioral responses, brain imaging and scans can also detect signs of addiction in the brain itself.

Scientific research has shown that 13 basic principles are the basis for an effective treatment of drug addiction. In addition, if you have a behavioral health disorder such as depression or anxiety, your risk of addiction also increases. This pathway is involved in drug addictions of all kinds, not only addiction to illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, but also addiction to alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine. Scientists now call it the brain reward region and have confirmed its role as an addiction pathway in countless animal studies (mostly with rats and mice) and many brain imaging studies of human addicts.

Like other chronic diseases, such as asthma or type 2 diabetes, continuous addiction management is required for long-term recovery. Using technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), medical professionals can see inside the inner workings of the brain, both in an addictive state and without. When someone who fights addiction enters a center, receives medication and has access to innovative treatments. Addictions focus on alterations in the brain's mesolimbic dopamine pathway, also known as the reward circuit, which begins in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) above the brain stem.

And perhaps a big perhaps because addiction experts are divided on this point;the path also figures in “addictions that do not involve drugs” for example;the compulsive and destructive search to eat exercise gamble or have sex. Addiction is highly treatable but that treatment must be based on evidence and scientific best practices. Each substance has slightly different effects on the brain but all addictive drugs including alcohol opioids and cocaine produce a pleasant surge of neurotransmitter dopamine in a region of the basal ganglia. Not everyone who uses substances becomes addicted by this process but if you're already at risk this is where cycle of addiction can begin.

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