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How does Addiction Develop?

For those individuals watching a loved one spiral into drug overuse, the concept of drug addiction can seem incomprehensible. We find ourselves asking:

“Why can’t he just stop?”
“She promised she wouldn’t take more pills. Why did she lie?”
“He was clean for two weeks. Why did he start using again?”

What non-addiction suffers may not always understand is that drug and alcohol addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a rational choice or a lack of willpower. Addiction causes an individual to compulsively use drugs, even if the risks involved are known. While first time drug use is usually a decision of choice, repeated use can be caused by drug-induced physical changes to the brain. If you or a loved one is suffering from drug addiction, understanding how addiction develops can be an important first step toward recovery and support.

Chemical Interference: Drug Impact on the Brain
When drugs reach the brain they interfere with its normal processing. Long-term exposure to drugs can even affect how well the brain is able to function.

Drugs affect three areas of the brain:

  • The brain stem, which manages all of the functions that our bodies need to survive, including breathing, blood movement, and food digestion.
  • The cerebral cortex, which accounts for nearly 75 percent of the brain. It is responsible for controlling a variety of functions, including how we process sensory information, think, problem-solve, and make decisions.
  • The limbic system, which unites several essential brain structures that control emotional responses. This includes feelings of pleasure, which motivate our decision-making capabilities to repeat whatever behavior caused the positive sensation.

In order for the brain to receive messages from the body, nerve cells release a chemical called a neurotransmitter into the space separating two nerve cells, called a synapse. The neurotransmitter crosses the synapse and attaches to proteins called receptors on the receiving nerve cell, causing changes in the receiving nerve cell, and thus, delivering a specific type of message to the brain.

Drugs are chemicals that interfere with the brain’s communication system and impact the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. They may either imitate the brain’s naturally occurring chemical messengers, or over stimulate the “reward circuit” of the brain that registers sensations of pleasure.

The Pleasure Effect: Use and Repeat
Many commonly abused drugs affect the brain’s reward circuit, which is part of the limbic system. Under normal, non-drug induced circumstances, when the reward circuit receives a message of pleasure it releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which create the sensation of pleasure. Drugs interfere with this process by causing unnaturally large amounts of dopamine to flood the system. It is the presence of high levels of dopamine that causes the “high” felt from drug use – the intense feeling of excitement or extreme happiness.

A normal functioning brain works to ensure we repeat healthy activities, such as eating, as well as those that flood our reward circuit. Our brain physically trains our body to repeat whatever activity, good or bad, caused the feelings of pleasure. In this way, drugs take control of the brain’s pleasure circuit, which can lead to long-term overuse, or abuse.

To further inhibit an individual’s ability to break the addiction cycle, after repeated drug use the brain begins to adjust to the now expected surges of dopamine. Neurons may begin to reduce the number of dopamine receptors, and/or simply stop producing dopamine all together. This process may even cause some neurons to die. The ultimate impact to our bodies is reduced feelings of pleasure, which means an individual must continue to use drugs, and even use greater quantities of drugs, to bring their dopamine levels back up to normal levels. In this way, repeated drug use causes an individual to build a tolerance to drugs and seek out more of them to feel the desired effects.

Long Term Damage and Long Term Solutions
Long-term drug use can have long-term effects and lasting consequences on your body and mind. If you or a loved one is suffering from drug addiction, consider seeking professional treatment. Drug abuse recovery starts with a conscious decision, but it requires emotional and physical changes in order to be successful long-term. Addiction recovery treatment centers can help a drug addiction sufferer to detoxify and learn lasting coping skills.

Contact Horizon Health Services at (716) 831-1800 for more information.