People suffering from substance use disorders lose control over their actions. Once addiction sets in, the cravings and search for drugs or alcohol take over, regardless of the consequences. Even when the costs are damaged relationships, hurt friends and family, losing jobs and financial ruin, the substance abuse continues. Why does addiction make people behave in hurtful and harmful ways? Why is it so hard for them to stop?
Substance Abuse Causes Changes in the Brain
The brain is responsible for your bodily functions and responses to your experiences. It shapes thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Prolonged drug and alcohol use can change important structures of daily brain functions. As these changes happen, the compulsion for substance abuse takes hold, and using drugs or alcohol without regard for the consequences becomes the only goal; the hallmark of addiction. 1
How Substance Abuse Changes the Brain
Certain areas of the brain control pleasure. When we perform activities like working out, eating delicious foods or spending time with those we love, a healthy brain’s reward centers respond by sending out neurotransmitters that result in pleasurable feelings. These pleasant feelings spur us on to repeat these behaviors and be rewarded once again.
Other areas of the brain help us exercise caution. Warning signs go up when we overexercise, eat in excess, or focus on sex too exclusively, so we can control our behaviors before they become harmful. We weigh the benefits against the consequences to make positive choices.
When an addiction is developing in someone, the areas of the brain that control pleasure, caution and decision-making are physically changing. Drugs or alcohol take the pleasure and reward pathways in the brain hostage, and the captor’s demands are more and more drugs or alcohol, no matter the consequences. The caution circuits cause anxiety and stress when the individual isn’t using substances. This shift in brain chemistry and structure results in people taking substances to prevent suffering rather than for pleasurable reasons.2
Ways the Brain Is Affected by Certain Drugs or Alcohol
- Alcohol has been proven to damage the brain’s neurons, as do methamphetamines and ecstasy
- Alcohol kills cells in a part of the brain where new memories are created
- Methamphetamine damages brain cells that contain dopamine
- Ecstasy damages neurons that produce serotonin
- Cocaine decreases the metabolism of glucose, the primary fuel for brain cells
- Opiates cause damage in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulse control
- Opiates change the brain’s glutamate activity levels, creating a predisposition to relapse and continued addiction
Freedom From Addiction Through Treatment
Using prescribed medications helps many people with the neurological aspects of addiction, but due to the complex psychological and social components, psychotherapy and behavioral therapy are needed as well. Ongoing research studies, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are focused on providing solutions for better management and prevention of substance use disorders.4