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Drug Addiction and the Brain

Authored by Granite Recovery Centers    Reviewed by James Gamache    Last Updated: August 27th, 2021


James Gamache Medical Reviewer
Jim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) and Licensed Masters Level Addictions Counselor (MLADC). He has been working in the field of mental health/addiction treatment since 1995. Jim earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Springfield College in 2000, and a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University in 2002. In 2002 Jim was hired by the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester holding the position of Clinical Case Manager. From 2004-2019, Jim was employed at WestBridge Inc. During his time at WestBridge, Jim held the following positions; Clinician, Team Leader, Director, & Chief Operations Officer. In 2019 Jim transitioned employment to GateHouse Treatment Center as the Clinical Director for 10 months. In October of 2020 Jim transitioned to Granite Recovery Centers and is currently serving as the Senior VP of Clinical Services and Quality Assurance.

Addiction is not just a simple collection of urges and behaviors. Rather, it is a full-fledged brain disorder that can adversely affect how the brain works and even how it is structured. These physical changes can make addicted individuals more prone to phenomena like cravings, erratic behaviors, depression, anxiety, and more. This is why fighting addiction can be so hard – addicts are fighting their brains every time the craving for a given substance arises. The connection between drug addiction and the brain is a complicated one. While many drugs can cause damage to the brain, various treatments can help addicts cope with addiction’s symptoms and give them a chance at reversing the damage through sustained abstinence. Learning how these changes to the brain occur, as well as how they manifest psychologically and physically, can be the first step to combating them and overcoming addiction.

Addiction and the Brain’s Reward System

Addictive drugs stimulate what scientists refer to as the brain’s “reward center”, a collection of areas that provide feelings of achievement and motivation when stimulated. Harvard Health notes that addictive drugs “provide a shortcut” to activation of the brain’s pleasure center. Then, the authors note, “the hippocampus lays down memories of this rapid sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli”. This conditioned response to the drugs one uses can develop into cravings with continued drug use. Soon, a tolerance can develop whereby the brain’s reward system is “much less sensitive to stimulation by both drug-related and non–drug-related rewards” than before. This reduces a person’s overall motivation, as well as feelings of drug-related euphoria, driving individuals to use more of the substance to achieve the same effects as before.

Neurons, Neurotransmitters, and Addiction

The mechanisms by which addictive drugs affect these changes differ with the substance. All drugs “interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters”. Some “lead to abnormal messages being sent through the [neuronal] network”, while others “can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals”. DrugAbuse.gov notes that these processes produce visible changes in areas of the brain as varied as the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain play important roles in regulating motivation, stress, and cognition.

Medical Imaging and Addiction’s Damage to the Brain

Imaging techniques can show the physical degradation caused by addiction. The brains of addicts show differences in metabolic activity, neurotransmitter receptor availability, the presence of important enzymes, and the amount of stimulation in key brain areas when compared to non-addicts. Grey matter, holding parts of the brain responsible for muscle movement and sensory perception, is notably reduced in users of methamphetamine. Abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex, such as a reduced size in the prefrontal lobe compared to non-drug users, are common among addicts. An enlarged basal ganglia is commonly found in cocaine and meth- dependent subjects, which may be “involved in the psychoses that occur in schizophrenia and in psychostimulant abuse.” Similarly, smaller hippocampi were found in meth users, which correlates with memory issues. Crucially, however, many studies show that partial or even full recovery of these structural damages is possible with sustained abstinence.

The Role of Professional Treatment

With addiction’s damage to numerous parts of the brain, a person’s motivation, emotional regulation, mood, and impulse control can be drastically impacted. Fighting addiction is about far more than willpower. Real recovery requires one to use every tool at their disposal to learn how to recognize and combat cravings, avoid or disempower triggers, and find newer, healthier coping mechanisms and emotional outlets other than substance abuse.   Lasting abstinence from addictive substances can repair damage to the brain. However, it is very difficult to achieve sustained recovery without a plan, the proper tools, a safe environment, and a supportive community. This is why professional addiction treatment centers can be so helpful. Granite Recovery Centers provides a full continuum of drug rehab treatment in New Hampshire implementing a unique blend of 12-step work with proven clinical modalities in its inpatient recovery programs. We will help you or your loved one develop healthy strategies and techniques to fight addiction through therapy, community, stepwork, relapse prevention planning, and numerous forms of active recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug addiction, please call our admissions specialists at 855.712.7784 or send a message online.

At Granite Recovery Centers, we want to provide accurate information about health and addiction so that our readers can make informed decisions.

We have credentialed medical doctors & clinicians who specialize in addiction treatment review the information on our website before it is published. We use credible sources such as government websites and journal articles when citing statistics or other medically related topics.