It’s no secret that chronic substance abuse can lead to dramatic changes in how people think and act. But what, exactly, causes these changes to occur? How does drug addiction affect the brain? Perhaps more importantly, can these effects be reversed, or are they permanent?
How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?
To answer the question, “How does drug addiction affect the brain?” we should first break this query down into two component parts:
- How do drugs affect the brain?
- How does addiction affect the brain?
At first, these may seem like identical questions, but they’re not.
If a person drinks alcohol one time, the drug will have a temporary impact on their brain. Depending on how much they drink, this impact may include impairments their ability to think clearly, speak, maintain their balance, and perform other functions.
When the person sobers up the next morning, they will be unlikely to have incurred any lasting harm as a result of their alcohol use.
But if that same person drinks heavily night after night, week after week, they are likely to become addicted to alcohol. At that point, the changes in their brain will render them incapable of managing their urges or regulating the amount and frequency of their alcohol use.
So let’s start by taking a look at how drugs affect the brain. When a person uses alcohol, opioids, cocaine, or any other psychoactive (mind-altering) substance, the drugs interact with receptors in the brain and throughout the central nervous system, or CNS. This can lead to changes such as:
- Increasing or reducing levels of certain neurotransmitters (which are chemicals that carry messages from the brain through the CNS to various body parts).
- Stimulating or suppressing automatic functions such as respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure.
- Impairing the person’s ability to accurately perceive and interact with their environment.
- Artificially elevating the individual’s mood, self-confidence, and motivation.
- Slowing the exchange of messages throughout the CNS, which can have a calming or sedating effect on the person.
Sometimes, the ability of drugs to affect the brain is used in positive ways, such as when a physician prescribes a certain medication. For example:
- Opioid-based medications prevent pain signals from being transmitted from affected body parts to the brain, which can provide considerable temporary relief.
- Antidepressants help the CNS retain greater amounts of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation.
The ways that drugs can affect the brain aren’t always positive or beneficial. In some cases, even one-time use of certain drugs can cause irreversible damage, including death. In other cases, drug abuse can lead to addiction, which we’ll discuss in greater detail in the next section.
How Does Drug Addiction Affect the Brain?
Continued drug abuse can impair the body’s ability to naturally produce or maintain a healthy balance of certain neurotransmitters. Thus, if the person stops using the substance they had been abusing, their body may not be able to generate the chemicals that influence mood, energy levels, motivation, and other characteristics.
When this occurs, the only way for a person to experience pleasure (or forestall a descent into despair) is to continue abusing the substance. Complicating the matter even further, as the person’s system adapts to the presence of the substance, the individual may have to use it more frequently or in greater amounts to achieve the effect they are seeking.
This is the point at which substance abuse (a behavior) morphs into addiction (a compulsion and a mental health disorder). For some people and with some drugs, addiction can occur relatively quickly. In other circumstances, it can take a longer period of sustained use before the individual becomes dependent on the substance. No matter how much time it takes, though, once a person develops an addiction, they may be unable to change their behavior without professional intervention.
To summarize: How does drug addiction affect the brain? By impairing the brain’s ability to maintain adequate levels of neurotransmitters in various areas throughout the central nervous system, and by causing the person to experience distressing physical and/or psychological symptoms when they try to abruptly curtail their drug use or stop it altogether.
How Does Recovery Affect the Brain?
Is there any good news on the topic of how does drug addiction affect the brain? Believe it or not, there is. In many cases, when a person ends their substance abuse and maintains their sobriety, their brain can begin to heal from the damage it incurred while the individual was in active addiction.
How does this occur? The brain has an amazing ability that’s often referred to as neuroplasticity or neural plasticity. This means that the brain can create new neural pathways or reorganize how messages are delivered to replace areas that have been irreparably damaged.
The brain’s ability to heal from the effects of addiction can of course be influenced by several factors, including how long the person has been struggling with addiction, which drug or drugs they have been using, the degree of damage their brain has incurred, and if they have any co-occurring mental or physical health concerns.
Neuroplasticity isn’t limited to addiction recovery. Some people who have had strokes or traumatic brain injuries have also made significant improvements as their brains effectively “rewired” themselves due to both structural and functional damage.
Find Addiction Treatment in Worcester, Massachusetts
Every day that you live with untreated drug addiction, you expose yourself to potentially life-altering or life-ending damage. When you get effective care at Lake Avenue Recovery, you can make great strides toward improved health and a much more hopeful future.
Our addiction treatment center in Worcester, Massachusetts, offers multiple outpatient treatment options in a safe and welcoming environment. Our team will work closely with you to assess your needs, help you identify your short- and long-term goals, and develop a customized plan just for you. Every step of the way, you will benefit from the guidance and support of a team of highly skilled and truly dedicated professionals.
To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact Us page or call us today.