How Addiction Changes The Brain

When people began to study addiction in the early 20th century, they reached a general consensus that it was a form of moral failing and lack of willpower. Continuing research has revealed that these early ideas were pretty far off the mark. In the 1950s, we came to recognize alcoholism as a form of chronic disease. We now know that genetic factors, family history of addiction, and other personal trauma contribute significantly to addiction risk. We also know that addiction creates significant changes in the brain that make it impossible to beat addiction simply by asserting willpower. The current consensus is that all forms of addiction are most accurately viewed as a disease that affects “brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry” in the words of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. To succeed in getting free from addiction, a true addict needs a solid understanding of their condition and its causes and effects and a good set of tools and techniques for getting clean and staying clean. Let’s take a closer look at how addiction changes the brain.

red dice white spots on a black table

Gambling affects addicts differently than heroin. Neither is good.

Different Types of Addiction Produce Different Changes

Every substance or addictive habit produces different physiological results and each affects the brain differently. For instance, chronic “Ecstasy” or MDMA use severely impairs memory, as does chronic heavy alcohol use. Heavy marijuana smokers have a smaller orbitofrontal cortex,  a part of the brain that is active during decision making and emotional processing. These changes that are particular to specific substances or habits are harmful, but they do not appear to contribute to the addictive power of a drug or habit. Indeed, recognizing these undesirable changes can help provide an addict with the motivation that they need to support a successful recovery effort.

mand sitting on steps holding head

Occasional deep despair in moments of sobriety is a common result of addiction.

Some Changes In Addict Brain Function Appear To Be Universal

While each drug and habit has its unique effects, there are effects that seem to occur across all different types of addiction. These effects help us understand why addiction is so difficult to overcome. Recognizing these effects helps an addict prepare for the difficult task ahead and understand why it is hard to follow a recovery plan, even after realizing a very real need to get well. Addiction changes the reward and motivation circuitry of the brain, hijacking mechanisms that drive healthy people to thrive and using them to compel addicts to seek out opportunities to engage in self-destructive behavior.

Drugs and addictive activities like gambling produce feelings of pleasure. While researchers once thought the natural brain chemical dopamine was responsible for feelings of pleasure, they now believe dopamine release is correlated with pleasure but perhaps does not directly cause the feeling. Other chemicals produced in the brain’s basal ganglia area, referred to as “the reward circuit,” account for these feelings. Addictive substances and behaviors cause a strong surge of these chemicals. These releases are larger than those caused by healthy natural highs, like feelings of accomplishment or connection.

Addicts become accustomed to the surge and experience a muted reaction to the comparatively smaller natural high. An addict will gradually become accustomed to the surge produced by addiction and will require a greater dose or a more reckless wager to achieve the same effect as tolerance begins to set in. Thus as addiction progresses, it becomes the only effective source of pleasure for the addict.

Dopamine release creates unconscious motivation to seek out addiction

The Role of Dopamine

Both pleasurable experiences arising from healthy activity and from drug use or other addictive behaviors trigger the release of dopamine. Dopamine tells our brain that something good is happening, and we should remember how to repeat it. Dopamine is our chemical ally, helping us to form good habits until we fall prey to addiction and then it is a powerful foe, programming bad habits into our brain circuitry. Just as addiction causes stronger surges of pleasure-inducing brain chemicals than healthy activity, it also causes larger dopamine releases. These powerful surges contribute to the creation of chemically reinforced habits that are very difficult to break. And even years after leaving the habits behind, triggers etched in the brain create an ongoing risk of relapse.

In a very literal sense, addiction begins to take over an addict’s brain, robbing them of their will. This is why it is more than just a matter of resolving to ‘be a better person’ and exerting some will power. It is not easy; it is very difficult. But there is good news. Millions and millions of people have successfully gotten clean and are staying clean every day, one day a time, using evidence-based methods to remain free from the grip of addiction. Every recovering addict is unique, and each has their own very difficult story. But if they can do it, you can too. All you need is a resolute commitment to do the work to get better and stay better and some knowledgeable experts to help you get on the right path.

Learn More About Our Addiction Recovery Program

Seasons Bali offers support for people struggling with all types of addiction. You are here reading this, so it is probably time for you or someone you care about to take the first step towards a much better life. It takes work but every addict can leave the unfulfilling cycle and the suffering behind.

If you or someone you care about has a problem with drugs or alcohol or any other form of addiction, talk to someone who understands. We are here to help. Call one of our experts today at (toll-free Australia) 1800 288 348 or 62 812 4678 4999 (also on Whatsapp) or email us at and we will call you.



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