Understanding Addiction in the Brain: How Substance Abuse Treatment Works and How to Help Families

Addiction is a complex phenomenon that affects not only the individual but also their family and loved ones. Our understanding of the brain has grown significantly in recent years, and research has revealed neurochemical and functional changes in the brain of those addicted to drugs. Neurochemical studies have shown that large and rapid increases in dopamine are associated with the reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse, while functional imaging studies have shown that during drug poisoning or desire, certain frontal regions are activated as part of a complex pattern. This article will explore how alcohol and drug addiction affects the whole family, how substance abuse treatment works, what family interventions can look like, and how to help children from families affected by alcohol and drug abuse. The brain is often compared to an incredibly complex and intricate computer.

Instead of electrical circuits in the silicon chips that control our electronic devices, the brain is made up of billions of cells, called neurons, that are organized into circuits and networks. Each neuron acts as a switch that controls the flow of information. Each substance has slightly different effects on the brain, but all addictive drugs, including alcohol, opioids, and cocaine, produce a pleasant surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia; neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages between cells nervous. This area is responsible for controlling rewards and our ability to learn based on rewards. As substance use increases, these circuits adapt.

They reduce their sensitivity to dopamine, leading to a reduction in the ability of a substance to produce euphoria or the “high” that occurs when consuming it. This is known as tolerance, and it reflects the way the brain maintains balance and adjusts to a “new normal”, the frequent presence of the substance. However, as a result, consumers often increase the amount of the substance they take in order to reach the level of high they are used to. These same circuits control our ability to enjoy ordinary rewards such as food, sex and social interaction, and when interrupted by substance use, the rest of life can become less and less pleasant for the user when they are not using the substance. Science has come a long way to help us understand the way the brain changes in addiction. In this section, we will provide updates on current research on addiction, recovery, and the brain.

New research reveals that the cerebellum, a large part of the human brain that scientists thought was primarily involved in motor control, may play a key role in reward-seeking and social behaviors. Findings may help inform future therapies to treat addiction. We propose that in drug addiction the value of drugs and drug-related stimuli be increased at the expense of other reinforcers. This is a consequence of conditioned learning and the re-establishment of reward thresholds as an adaptation to high levels of stimulation induced by drugs of abuse. In this model, during exposure to the drug or drug-related signals, recall of expected reward results in an overactivation of reward and motivation circuits while activity in cognitive control circuit decreases.

This contributes to inability to inhibit urge to seek and consume drug resulting in compulsive intake. This model has implications for therapy as it suggests multi-pronged approach targeting strategies to decrease rewarding properties of drugs, improve rewarding properties of alternative reinforcers, interfere with conditioned learned associations and strengthen cognitive control in drug addiction treatment. Alcohol and drugs affect neurotransmitters and neural pathways in the brain. At same time brain struggles to maintain balance. As result when drugs and alcohol change brain chemistry brain adapts. For example brain will reduce dopamine production if drug artificially recreates effects of dopamine. Once adaptation becomes norm brain will want “correct imbalance” when drug is no longer present by taking drug again.

Over time Substance Use Disorder (SUD) changes both structure of brain and how it works. According to current theory of addiction dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter glutamate take over brains reward-related learning system. Unfortunately lack radiotracers available image glutamate function in human brain has prevented its research in drug addicted subjects. Reinforcing effects of drugs during intoxication create environment that if perpetuated triggers neural adaptations result in addiction. However due its delicate structure and chemistry understanding addiction requires multi-pronged approach targeting strategies decrease rewarding properties drugs improve rewarding properties alternative reinforcers interfere with conditioned learned associations strengthen cognitive control drug addiction treatment. In conclusion understanding addiction requires multi-pronged approach targeting strategies decrease rewarding properties drugs improve rewarding properties alternative reinforcers interfere with conditioned learned associations strengthen cognitive control drug addiction treatment. Substance abuse treatment works by helping individuals recognize their addiction understand how it affects them their family develop strategies cope with cravings manage triggers prevent relapse. Family interventions can be first step recovery providing support guidance loved ones affected by alcohol or drug abuse helping children from families affected by alcohol or drug abuse.

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