How Substance Abuse Affects the Brain

There is no doubt that the brain is the most complex organ in your body. The brain is the center of all your daily activities. Breathing, walking, eating, driving a car, thinking, creating, and being—your brain is you. When you abuse drugs and alcohol, these substances profoundly change your brain chemistry. As a result, your body functions differently. Most importantly, your thoughts, feelings, and actions revolve around substance use. This puts your physical and psychological health in jeopardy and can only be reversed through professional help.

How Feeling Pleasure Can Lay the Foundation for Addiction.

When a person ingests drugs or alcohol, these substances flood the brain with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is known as the brain’s “feel good” chemical. While the flood of dopamine is seen throughout the brain, its effects are evident in a specific part of the cerebral cortex called the nucleus accumbens. This particular brain region is the brain’s rewards and pleasure center.

Over time, drugs and alcohol become the primary source of dopamine release, and it forges a shortcut to the nucleus accumbens. Another brain region called the hippocampus imprints the pleasure memories and experiences that are associated with substance use. Additionally, the associations between substance use and the environmental cues that accompany use create a conditioned response in a specific brain area called the amgydala.

“Learning” Addiction

Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter. Previous studies showed that the flood of dopamine associated with the pleasure of taking substances would reinforce continued substance use. However, there have been some studies that indicate dopamine is also behind the learning of addiction. Dopamine interacts with another major neurotransmitter called glutamate. This potent combination completely takes over the brain’s system of reward-based learning.

As a person’s substance use increases, the nucleus accumbens interact with the prefrontal cortex in a way that correlates regular drug and alcohol use to feeling good. As a result, the user has a deeper motivation to use drugs and alcohol. This motivation extends to an individual’s preoccupation with procuring their substance of choice and finding the appropriate people and environment to use these substances

The Development of Tolerance

As people continue to use their substance of choice, they will notice the pleasure they experience will diminish. Drugs and alcohol release a large amount of dopamine, and it floods receptors to an overwhelming degree. Over time, users will feel less pleasure. In order to feel the euphoria experienced when they first started taking substances, users must take more of their substance of choice. Because the brain has adapted to the increases in dopamine levels, it begins to desensitize the receptor sites, and tolerance begins to develop.

At that point, users will develop compulsive behavior patterns. When the pleasure of taking a substance in a certain situation diminishes, the memories of the pleasure felt and wanting to take more of that substance of choice persist. Dependent on specific environmental cues, the cravings for drug and alcohol can take over a user’s life.

Getting Help

In order for a user to break their addiction, they must seek professional help. Substance use significantly alters brain chemistry and functioning. If users stop their drug use immediately, it will produce physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that can be extremely uncomfortable and painful to endure. If users have underlying medical issues or addicted to other substances, withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening.

Through intensive drug treatment, users can uncover the root causes of their addiction. Through medical detox, therapy, 12-step groups, and life and coping skills training, newly recovering addicts will receive the tools and support they need to pursue a happier and healthier life. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, find a reputable drug treatment center today.


Leave a Reply