How does Addiction Affect the Brain

It is a known fact that the brain serves as the most dynamic and complex organ in the body. Weighing about three pounds, the brain consists of gray and white matter that oversees all bodily function.  The proper functioning of the brain ensures our very survival.

In summary, the proper functioning of the brain ensures our very survival. It interprets and responds to everything that we experience, it shapes our emotions, thoughts and even behavior.  When our brains function well, we are constantly adapting to our environment. Ironically, the adaptive ability of the brain contributed to the development of addiction.

Addiction can cause four fundamental modifications to the brain. This includes:

  1. Addiction changes the brain’s natural balance.
  2. Addiction changes the brain’s chemistry.
  3. Addiction changes the brain’s communication pathways.
  4. Addiction Changes the structures in the brain

# 1 Addiction changes the brain’s natural balance.

Addictive behavior hampers in the biological process of the brain called homeostasis. Scientists and experts consider the human body as a biological system. For them, all biological systems attempt to maintain a normal balance as part of its functioning.

The brain functions as the main overseer of this balance.  It makes countless adjustments to maintain a balanced, well-functioning, biological system. The brain individually determined each person’s normal balance. Drug abuse and addictive behavior can lead to changes in this so called normal balance.

Addiction can over stimulate and interferes with the balance of the brain. The brain makes a quick adjustment to maintain the balance, creating a new balance set-point. The creation of the new balance referred to as “allostasis”.

The brain’s adaptive behavior triggers changes in the brain’s normal function. These changes account for many behaviors associated with addiction such as:

  • Intense cravings to get drugs.
  • Persistent behavior to seek the drug despite its negative effects.
  • Difficulty or unsuccessful trials quitting the addiction.
  • The obsessive nature of addictions that see little else in life matters.

The new behavior causes the brain’s balance to accommodate the addiction. Once changed, the brain adapts the addictive behavior to maintain the new homeostatic balance.

#2 Addiction Changes The Brain’s Chemistry

Good communication is absolutely important, functioning as the major key to coordinate with family members or people from work. Our bodies are no different. Neuron systems deliver messages back and forth within the structures of the spinal cord, nerves and the brain. These complex networks regulate and interpret everything that we feel, see, think and do.

To understand the effect of addiction on the brain system, one must understand how communication works. Communication systems consist of five senses, namely:

  • sight
  • sound
  • taste
  • touch
  • smell

These five senses collect and analyze information around us; the brain processes all these.

As a complex organ, the brain receives a massive amount of information. It may sound complex but the brain works on a simple electrochemical process.

The communication system works allowing the brain to interact with the other body parts. Billions of neurons passed the information to the brain. Human brains contain billions of these neurons connections. The massive network builds an electrochemical communication system.

Some neurotransmitters can affect other neurons (excitatory). They can affect other neurons and produce reactions. Here are some of the neurons found in the brain.

  •    Inhibitory neurons – prevents the next neuron from sending another reaction.
  •    Glutamate – the most common excitatory neurotransmitter found in the brain.
  •    Gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA – the most common inhibitory. This plays an important role in addiction.

Neuropeptides that are relevant to addiction are:

  •    natural opiates  present in the brain (called endorphins)
  •    stress hormones
  •    peptides (associated with feeding and anxiety)

These molecules have their own specific types of receptors.  Some neurotransmitters react to specific drugs. All drugs can affect this system to varying degrees more so in the dopamine system.

Here are some of the illicit substance and its effect on the system.

Drugs and  its affected brain system

Cocaine and Methamphetamine – Alters the dopamine system

Opiates (heroin, codeine, Oxycontin®, Vicodin®, and hydrocodone) – Cause changes in the dopamine, opiate (endorphin), and GABA systems.

Alcohol- Changes the dopamine, glutamate, and GABA systems

Marijuana- activates dopamine and in the brain’s own cannabinoid system.

Nicotine found in cigarettes- Changes in the acetylcholine system

Ecstasy- Affects both dopamine and serotonin systems.

# 3 Addiction Changes The Brain’s Communication Pathways

New neural pathways are formed as an addiction develops. This is because addiction chemically altered the brain’s communication system. When you take that drug away, the brain must again form new neural pathways. Just as when we had to forge a new trail in the woods. The experience is initially uncomfortable.  Successful recovery cases can press on through this brief, uncomfortable period.

Remember, it was difficult and uncomfortable to forge a new pathway around a fallen tree. The same is true for the initial period of recovery. It can be difficult and uncomfortable while these new neural pathways are forming.

It is important for the recovering person to persevere and does not give up. Particularly in this initial stage of discomfort, new neural pathways will form for recovery. These new pathways will become more established and better developed over time. As they do, recovery becomes easier and more comfortable.

Unfortunately, because the brain can adapt easily, it also serves as the root of addiction. The brain adapts to the strong effects of addictive drugs and activities.

Changes that occur in the brain regions associated with the following:

  • reward
  • memory and emotion
  • decision-making
  • stress regulation

These changes to our brain make the repeated use of addictive substances or activities very compelling. Luckily, the neuroplasticity of the brain permits the person to these changes.

Therefore, although addiction leads to structural changes in the brain, we are capable of learning new coping skills. The brain’s plasticity allows these new coping skills to be imprinted.

# 4 Addiction Changes the structures in the brain

The brain is composed of many different regions and structures. The communication of the brain system allows these different regions to manage their activities. Each of these different structures has its own purposes.

Addictions can alter these regions and structures and how the brain functions. It affects some regions and structures of the brain, such as:

  • Decision-making
  • Drug-seeking behavior and craving
  • Withdrawal effects, and relapse triggers
  • Stress regulation and withdrawal.

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