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The science behind drug abuse and addiction

Addicted brainSubstance dependence, also known as drug dependence, happens when long-term changes occur in the brain causing it to adapt to repeated drug administration. When a dependent user stops using, withdrawal occurs. In a 2009 article issued by Harvard Medical School, researchers claimed that long-term abuse leads to changes in the brain which promote and prolong drug abuse in a which can be a never-ending cycle.

When a human performs an action to satisfy a desire, such as using drugs to get high, dopamine is released and triggers cells in the cerebral hemisphere to produce pleasure. This trains the brain to be dependent on those actions for survival. This creates a “reward pathway.” The brain then encourages the body to repeat that action and achieve the same pleasurable feeling, making drug abuse more likely after each instance.

However, after constant fulfillment, the cells in the brain can become damaged, making each cycle less and less rewarding. This can be extremely dangerous as it’s likely to lead an unsatisfied user to increased use, overdose and/or death. Overwhelmed receptors in the brain can cause a shutdown, causing it to forget about other powerful sources of reward and making the drug the only real desire worth pursuing, even when the drug no longer provides pleasure.

Addictive drugs act as a shortcut to the reward pathway. The hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, stimulates the memory of rapid satisfaction and the cells in the brain respond as they have in the past, craving the action and pleasurable release.

In addition, some conditioning in the brain can come from the circumstances when the drugs were used. If the user experiences strong feelings of stress or anxiety, it can trigger a hormonal release in the brain and cause the user to crave and pursue a quick release of dopamine through drug use.

Long-term addiction can lead to a weakening in the synapses, or the connections between nerve cells, causing genes in those cells to become damaged. These damages can make reversing the results of substance dependence incredibly difficult.

A formal diagnosis of substance/drug dependence requires three of the following factors:

  • Resilience to drug effects after increasing the dosage
  • Suffering withdrawal after stopping drug use
  • Using a drug more frequently, or for longer than intended
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down on drug use
  • Spending a large amount of time finding, using and recovering from a drug
  • Abandoning daily activities to use the drug
  • Continuing to use the drug after it has caused harm

Curing substance dependence is a new field of study, with most of the methods revolving around re-training the pathways of the brain. Behavioral therapy and support groups can help identify and heal the damaged areas of the brain, helping the person to recover and his brain to re-learn what is really needed for survival and what lies were created chemically.

Some forms of therapy address what stressors can lead a former drug abuser to relapse and prepare patients to counteract them as part of the treatment process. Therapists and counselors target what creates and nurtures motivation within each patient, attempting to create a positive environment where positive actions can be nurtured and promoted within the brain and the patient’s environment.

If you are concerned about a friend or loved one and think they may have a problem with substance abuse, contact Horizon Health Services at (716) 831-1800 to talk with one of our knowledgeable counselors.