The Impact Addiction Has on Your Brain and Your Behavior
Addictive substances can hijack the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This flood of dopamine reinforces the behavior, leading to a cycle of repeated substance use or engagement in addictive behaviors.
In this article, we will discuss some of the impacts that addiction can have on your brain and your behavior.
How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?
The brain is the most dynamic and complex organ in our bodies. Our very survival depends on the proper functioning of our brain. When our brains function well, we adapt to our changing environment efficiently and as needed. Ironically, it is the brain’s ability to be so adaptive that contributes to the formation of addiction. However, addiction causes changes to the brain in ways that make our ability to adapt work against us, resulting in behaviors and feelings that confuse our reward system.
There are at least four fundamental ways in which addiction affects our brain:
It Causes Changes to the Brain’s Natural Balance (Homeostasis)
All biological systems, including humans, attempt to maintain a set baseline, or balance, known as homeostasis. The brain oversees this balance. It makes various adjustments to maintain a balanced, well-functioning biological system. Substance and behavioral addiction lead to changes in this normal balance, which leads to consequences. This chronic overstimulation of the brain interferes with the maintenance of this balance, and when the brain has difficulty maintaining the balance of the biological system it oversees, it adjusts. These adjustments, however, often make room for more of the addictive substances or behaviors, which sets the system off into a circle of repetition.
It Alters the Brain’s Chemistry
When a person becomes addicted to substances like drugs and alcohol, it is essentially because their brain has been quite literally altered. The brain communicates through a series of neurons, neurotransmitters, and receptors. Some drugs can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body. This allows the drugs to attach to and activate the neurons. Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being sent through the network.
Other drugs can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters. For example, when someone engages in substance abuse or addictive behaviors, dopamine floods their brain’s reward pathways. Behavorial addiction, too, can cause the brain to associate positive chemical reactions with certain behaviors and produce little to none when those behaviors cease.
It Changes the Brain’s Communication Patterns
Addiction chemically alters the brain’s communication system, leading to the formation of new neural pathways. Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cells to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, then drives us to go after it. Addiction causes changes in the function of our brains that involve pleasure, learning, stress, decision-making, and self-control. Over time, the brain becomes impaired because of the impact on its communication system, which causes the person to make irrational and illogical decisions.
It Causes Changes to Brain Structures and Their Functioning
The brain’s communication system uses various regions and structures to coordinate activities. Each of these different regions and structures serves different purposes. Addictions can alter the way these regions and structures function. The consequences of altering these regions can lead to impaired decision-making, impulsive behavior, habit formation, seeking and craving attention or substances, issues with stress regulation, withdrawal effects, and relapse triggers.
Effective Treatments are Available
Addiction affects the brain’s areas that are responsible for judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control. But with proper assistance and guidance, you can take positive steps toward recovery.
At Valley Forge Medical Center, we are here to help you develop effective prevention and treatment strategies. Contact us today.