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How Addiction Affects The Brain

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How The Brain Works

How Addiction Affects The Brain

The brain is the communication center of the body. It uses electrical impulses to transmit information and messages throughout the body using the central nervous system. Some of these messages help with daily living, like telling the heart to beat or the lungs to breathe, while other messages help people live their lives, like when to walk and how to speak.

The brain also helps shape who people are as individuals. The way the brain communicates with the body and helps the person process information shapes that persons personality.

Opioid Overdose And Brain Injury

Individuals who abuse opioids are also particularly at risk of overdose, especially with the proliferation of super-potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl on the street. An overdose from opioids involves severe respiratory depression that, if not treated quickly, may result in hypoxia-related injuries. Hypoxia refers to insufficient oxygen in the tissues.12

A lack of sufficient oxygen for long enough may lead to brain injury. Hypoxia-related brain injury can result in:13

  • Confusion/disorientation.
  • Memory problems, such as short-term memory loss.
  • Behavior changes.
  • Problems walking.

What Biological Factors Increase Risk Of Addiction

Biological factors that can affect a person’s risk of addiction include their genes, stage of development, and even gender or ethnicity. Scientists estimate that genes, including the effects environmental factors have on a person’s gene expression, called epigenetics, account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s risk of addiction.27 Also, teens and people with mental disorders are at greater risk of drug use and addiction than others.28

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Limbic System: Effects Of Drugs On The Brain

The limbic system in the brain is comprised of various parts that control most of our emotional responses and memory retention. Do drugs affect the limbic system? In case youre wondering what part of the brain controls addiction, the limbic system is also known to control the use of alcohol or drugs when an individual is suffering from substance abuse. Substance-seeking behavior is often reinforced by emotional and memory triggers from the limbic system such as:

  • Experiencing unhealthy stress, sadness, and other negative emotions
  • Seeing familiar places and people you abused substances with
  • Being immersed in situations where youre emotionally set to give in to drugs or alcohol

Specifically, each part of the limbic system are affected by continued drug or alcohol use:

Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is the part of the brain responsible for the regulation of many functions such as hunger, thirst, pain, and pleasure. It receives information through the nerves and sends out a response to regulate and normalize each level of function.

In the drug-addicted brain, the hypothalamus is affected due to abnormal levels of brain chemicals. Since the hypothalamus controls the bodys autonomic nervous system, many of the functions of the vital organs will be affected such as:

  • Breathing: Shallow or labored breathing, slowing down, or cessation of breathing
  • Heart functions: Fast or slow heart rate, irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations
  • Blood pressure: Low or high blood pressure

Hippocampus

Factors That Contribute To Addiction

world of facts: Alcohol

Why one person may become addicted to a substance where another, with the same consumption habits, does not remain one of the more vexing questions about substance use and addiction. Substance use can progress due to several factors that influence substance-seeking behaviors. These factors include:

  • Genetics and biology. Family history of addiction and other still unknown biological factors can predispose someone to addiction.
  • Age of onset. The earlier the substance use begins, the higher the chances that the individual will develop a substance use disorder later in life.
  • Personality traits. The persons unique psychological makeup, coping skills, temperament, resilience capacity, and personality all factor in.
  • Environmental. Family dynamics and early childhood experiences shape a persons mental wellbeing. A history of abuse, neglect, attachment disorder, and family discord can set the stage for a substance use disorder later in life.
  • Negative life events. Experiencing trauma or the loss of a parent or sibling, or any devastating life event can lead someone to begin self-medicating symptoms of depression or anxiety.

There is still much to be learned about why some people develop addictions while others do not. The more that is revealed through neurobiology, the clearer our understanding becomes about the prevention, causes, and treatment of substance use disorders.

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Brain Therapies For Addiction

When someone battling addiction enters a facility, they receive medication and have access to innovative treatments. A common treatment to stabilize and soothe the brain after addiction is biofeedback therapy. This allows a professional to monitor the brain. They can figure out how to improve brain activity, reducing the effects of addiction and unhealthy impulses.

Biofeedback uses electroencephalograms . EEGs are typically used to help individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and can be helpful to individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder and other brain disorders. Biofeedback reduces stress and reduces involuntary functions. This therapy can also include meditation, guided imagery, and muscle relaxation.

When this is combined with therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy , biofeedback improves the individuals involuntary functions, like heartbeat, blood pressure, and muscle contraction. Neurofeedback, or EEQ therapy, is a type of biofeedback. This therapy is a brain-training treatment. In the case of addiction, this therapy monitors the brains activity. It helps patients to reduce stress and anxiety and can treat compulsions. The end result of both therapies is the administrator rewarding the brain to recover how it functions.

Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder

Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder can be a rare, long-lasting neurological consequence of hallucinogen abuse. It typically occurs with LSD, but may also occur following use of other hallucinogens like MDMA , psilocybin, and mescaline.12

HPPD is characterized by flashbacks and chronic or recurrent perceptual symptoms that can make it feel like you are re-experiencing the feelings or sensations you experienced when you used the drug. The key symptom tends to be visual hallucinations , which may cause significant distress and affect your ability to function.13

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Addiction Alters How Neurons In The Brain Communicate

Addictive substances interfere with the way neurons, or nerve cells in the brain, send, receive, and process signals via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Drugs like marijuana and heroin activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics the structure of neurotransmitters. But they dont activate neurons in the same way, which causes abnormal messages in the brain network. Amphetamine and cocaine can cause neurons to release excessive amounts of naturally-occurring neurotransmitters, also disrupting normal communication between neurons. Alcohol and opioids work in a similar way. Miscommunication between neurons disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters, which can cause depression, insomnia, oversleeping, restlessness, irritability, paranoia, and severe fatigue.

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HOW DRUG ADDICTION AFFECTS THE BRAIN (2018)

When people get depressed, they may get lonely and tend to masturbate, he said. If theyre having anxiety, the problem occurs when the only way you know how to calm yourself is with masturbation in those cases, porn is the symptom, not the problem.

In fact, in Kerners experience, ethical, so-called feminist pornography which often features storylines, and always contracted, paid adults having consensual sex can enhance couples sexual experiences by helping partners get warmed up and be creative in the bedroom.

Perhaps counterintuitively, watching porn may also help keep some relationships intact, he said.

I know a lot of men who travel and are happy to masturbate to porn rather than potentially pursue infidelity, Kerner said. When there are natural libido gaps in a relationship maybe one partner is interested in sex more than the other partner, maybe one just had a baby and cant have sex, or maybe illness is involved porn is actually a really positive way to smooth over those libido gaps.

As for adolescents consuming porn, the Virginia legislators argue that the average age of exposure to porn is 11 to 12 a stat that certainly would scare any responsible parent, yet one which Kerner argued, if true, suggests a deeper issue for discussion.

What dont we know about porn?

And yet, experts like Struthers argue that basic psychological science suggests frequent exposure to something like porn may indeed lead to normalization of harmful behaviors.

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What Does Addiction Do To The Brain

Addiction impacts the brain on many levels. The chemical compounds in Stimulants, Nicotine, Opioids, alcohol, and Sedatives enter the brain and bloodstream upon use. Once a chemical enters the brain, it can cause people to lose control of their impulses or crave a harmful substance.

When someone develops an addiction, the brain craves the reward of the substance. This is due to the intense stimulation of the brains reward system. In response, many users continue use of the substance this can lead to a host of euphoric feelings and strange behavioral traits. Long-term addiction can have severe outcomes, such as brain damage, and can even result in death.

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How Science Has Revolutionized The Understanding Of Drug Addiction

For much of the past century, scientists studying drugs and drug use labored in the shadows of powerful myths and misconceptions about the nature of addiction. When scientists began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, people with an addiction were thought to be morally flawed and lacking in willpower. Those views shaped societys responses to drug use, treating it as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punishment rather than prevention and treatment.

Today, thanks to science, our views and our responses to addiction and the broader spectrum of substance use disorders have changed dramatically. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of compulsive drug use, enabling us to respond effectively to the problem.

As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a medical disorder that affects the brain and changes behavior. We have identified many of the biological and environmental risk factors and are beginning to search for the genetic variations that contribute to the development and progression of the disorder. Scientists use this knowledge to develop effective prevention and treatment approaches that reduce the toll drug use takes on individuals, families, and communities.

Nora D. Volkow, M.D.

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Changes Last Long After Use

Stopping drug use doesnt immediately return the brain to normal. Some drugs have toxic effects that can kill neuronsand most of these cells will not be replaced. And while changes to connections between neurons in the brain may not be permanent, some last for months. Some research suggests the changes may even last for years.

Long-lasting brain changes can make it challenging for addicts to stay drug-free. They often experience intense cravings, leading to relapse.

Brain Changes From Sustained Drug Use

Addiction: Causes and Natural Treatments

Sustained abuse of certain substances can cause potential long-term neurological effects or changes to brain function. These include: . traumatic brain injuries, headaches, a range of persistent neurological and cognitive complications, and brain changes, including loss of gray matter, reduced hippocampal volume, and enlarged cerebral ventricles may occur as a result of chronic substance abuse.10 Potential consequences and brain changes can vary by substance and can include the development of some of the problems discussed below.

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The Brain Addiction And Withdrawal

As a consequence of drug addiction, the brain rewards the harmful behavior. It encourages drug addiction, keeping the individual in a cycle of highs and lows the user may feel like theyre on an emotional roller-coaster, feeling desperation and depression without their substance of abuse. Once someone suddenly stops using, there are harsh mental, physical, and emotional results. Individuals may experience distressing symptoms they cannot ignore for some substances withdrawal symptoms are generally stronger for some substances than others.

At the point of withdrawal, someone who stops using Heroin experiences intense cravings, depression, anxiety, and sweating. Much of this is due to the rewiring of the brain after extended Heroin use. In this stage, the individual may not have a full-blown addiction a tolerance or dependency may have developed, however. Over time, the high volume of chemicals floods the brain the brain correspondingly adapts to the mental effects of the substance. The brain then reduces its production of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain. Withdrawal symptoms often need professional treatment, which can significantly help reduce the chance of relapse and the risks of stroke and heart attack.

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Hypoxic Brain Damage From Overdose

Overdoses of certain substances can lead to potentially fatal neurological complications and injuries, including hypoxia, the shortage of oxygen delivery to the brain, and anoxia, meaning the total loss of oxygen that is usually due to hypoxia.17,18

Hypoxic brain injury can occur due to respiratory depression, a serious consequence of opioid overdose.19 In addition to being a particular risk with opioids , use of benzodiazepines, alcohol, or other sedatives can also lead to respiratory depression. Poly-substance use, which often involve combining substances that have depressant effects, such as opioids, sedatives, or alcohol. Combining substances in generalbut especially depressantscan have unpredictable and dangerous outcomes.19

Overdose survivors may develop a hypoxic brain injury that leads to long-lasting or even permanent damage such as short-term memory loss, stroke, mental disorientation, loss of body movement, changes in gait, incontinence, temporary leg paralysis, reduced motor skills, slowed reaction time, seizures, nerve injury, and memory impairment.20

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The Nature Of Addiction

Understanding the nature of addiction and other mental health challenges lessens shame and increases motivation to seek help. Older approaches to recovery viewed addiction as a moral failure or just the result of poor decisions. Many taught that people simply needed greater willpower to change. However, scientific research has shown this perspective to be woefully incorrect. Active addiction can rapidly become a serious medical condition by rewiring the brain around unhealthy patterns. Our backgrounds, childhood experiences, genetics, and other factors outside of our control also affect the likelihood of developing addiction.

The Dopamine Pathway Is Not The Yellow Brick Road

How Addiction Affects Your Body and Mind

Neuroscientists believe that their research is at last going to enable serious progress on this ancient human affliction. The common pathway was a benchmark revelation, in part because it offered a unified framework for studying what for a long time had seemed like a hodgepodge of unrelated behaviors.

Important though it may be for understanding addiction, the dopamine pathway itself does not seem likely to yield promising new medications or other treatments for addiction. The pathway is so essential to normal functioning, to the everyday pleasures of life, and perhaps to learning itself, that it may be nearly impossible to interfere with it successfully. Whatever you do to the dopamine system, you always get more than you bargained for, Caron observes. That’s because of lack of selectivity and our lack of fundamental understanding of which protein of the dopamine system really mediates the addictive behavior.

And although genes seem more and more likely to play a key role in addiction, identifying these genes will not necessarily lead to treatments either. There’s not going to be a single gene that’s defective in people that have more liability to become addicted. You probably can have many, many changes in the brain that will all eventually manifest themselves in addictive personalities, Caron says.

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When Many People Talk About Addiction The First Thought That Comes To Mind Is Often The Health Problems

While a substance abuse problem can lead to a visible decline in mental health or physical appearance, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes. Along with the physical health repercussions of long-term drug or alcohol abuse, prolonged use of these substances can literally mess with your mind. Addiction isnt just a bad habit or some risky choices it is a disease that can actually alter the chemistry of the brain.

What Happens In The Brain During Recovery

In the course of recovery from addiction, brain gets unstuck areas that lost connectivityparticularly the prefrontal cortexregain their normal neural power. Gradually, executive function is restored. People recover the ability to exert control over impulses, over feelings of craving. In the nucleus accumbens, new subsets of dopamine receptors flourish at synapses to deliver the capacity to get excited by other goals and especially by connection to others. People regain the ability to respond to more natural rewards, setting the stage for psychological growth.

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Drug And Alcohol Effects On The Brain

Historically, addiction was blamed on a lack of moral character, sowing the early seeds of stigma. It wasnt until the 1950s that the American Medical Association recognized that alcoholism was a disease of the brain. This opened up a whole new realm of scientific discovery regarding the impact of substances on brain structures and functioning, and how to best provide treatment for individuals with substance use disorders.

Understanding the neurobiological aspects of addiction helps us to better grasp how a substance can have such devastating effects on someones life. Ongoing study of the neuroadaptations that occur from substance use has shed light on the long-term effects of these brain changes. We now know that the altered neural pathways can remain altered long after someone has stopped using the substance. This discovery has contributed to our understanding of how powerful cravings can lead to relapse, months or even years into recovery.

Why Are Drugs More Addictive Than Natural Rewards

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For the brain, the difference between normal rewards and drug rewards can be likened to the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain of someone who misuses drugs adjusts by producing fewer neurotransmitters in the reward circuit, or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. As a result, the person’s ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding activities is also reduced.

This is why a person who misuses drugs eventually feels flat, without motivation, lifeless, and/or depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable. Now, the person needs to keep taking drugs to experience even a normal level of rewardwhich only makes the problem worse, like a vicious cycle. Also, the person will often need to take larger amounts of the drug to produce the familiar highan effect known as tolerance.

For more information on drugs and the brain, order NIDAs Teaching Addiction Science series or the Mind Matters series at www.drugabuse.gov/parent-teacher.html. These items and others are available to the public free of charge.

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