Have you ever wondered why drug addicts continue taking their preferred substance despite all the damage it has done and will continue to do? Let’s take a look how exactly drug addiction affects the brain.
The decision to take the drugs for the very first time may be a choice. Continuous drug use, however, isn’t, because at a certain point, it’s the brain that takes over. From then on the brain tells its owner to continue using the drug regardless of the consequences.
Essentially, drugs rewire the brain and make it want more. Let’s take a closer look at how addiction affects the brain.
Find out about that one natural chemical that plays a critical role in the whole drug addiction process.
The limbic system
Generally speaking, every single aspect of the human anatomy is fascinating.
The human brain, however, is way beyond fascinating in the sense that it is the most complex of all. It controls every single voluntary and involuntary action we make, from the most basic motor skills to our decision-making process.
But for all its power, the brain remains susceptible to being physiologically co-opted by outside forces. Drugs are one of those outside forces, and the part of the brain responsible for one’s addiction to them is called the limbic system.
Located on both sides of the thalamus and just under the cerebrum, the limbic system is also referred to as the “brain reward system”, and it is this system that gets altered by the substances that people abuse. Incidentally, eating, drinking and other life-sustaining activities also naturally activate the limbic system.
Great food, a refreshing drink, getting a hug or kiss, receiving praise or winning at something gets the brain to flood the limbic system with dopamine, and it is this chemical that plays a huge role in how a person becomes a drug addict.
How dopamine works
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps modulate the brain’s ability to perceive reward reinforcement. Produced in several areas of the brain, dopamine also serves a number of different functions. It is involved in, among other things, regulating movement to the control of attention.
Normal levels of dopamine are released when a person engages in an activity that brings pleasure, such as eating and sex. Unfortunately, addictive drugs send dopamine production into overdrive. In some cases, drugs of abuse cause as much as a ten-fold spike in dopamine levels. There are even drugs that mimic dopamine.
When the limbic system gets flooded with a lot of drug-induced dopamine, this “bonanza” of a neurochemical reward gets associated by the brain with the drug. The brain will eventually think that the elevated dopamine levels are “normal”. Over time, the drugs will force the brain to believe that the body needs those drugs to maintain those “normal” dopamine levels. The brain will signal its owner to desire those drugs, and that’s when drug addiction takes root. By that time, the person will lose control, and will be left with nothing but a strong desire to take drugs, regardless of the consequences.
The long-term effects of drug addiction on the brain
The problem with drug addiction is that in the long term, it takes quite a toll on the brain. Drug addiction affects the brain in many ways. For starters, drugs such as inhalants and solvents have toxic effects that can kill neurons. And once these cells die, they aren’t likely to regenerate. MDMA or ecstasy, on the other hand, can destroy cells right there in the cerebral cortex and interrupt one’s thinking processes. Alcohol, cocaine, heroin and other substances also change the brain in one way or another.
In most cases, these changes that drug addiction makes on the brain may not really be permanent, but they can be long-lasting, with some even lasting for years. For drug users who have stopped taking drugs and are trying to recover, these long-lasting changes could make it tough for them to stay clean. More often than not, they are likely to experience cravings for their drug of choice down the road. Some may even fall into relapse and start using again.
Drugs affect the human brain in a huge way. While addiction recovery is always possible, complete rehabilitation will require a major effort not only from the drug addict, but also from his or her friends and loved ones. With scientists continue to study how drug addiction affects the brain, we can only hope that over time, they will find a definitive solution that will treat drug addiction more effectively.