Addiction is a disease, and addiction treatment is in many ways like treatment for other diseases. While there are still a few people who think that addiction is merely a failure of willpower, science is marching ahead, demonstrating that, in fact, addiction rewires the brain and causes physical changes to its structure.

That does not mean that the damage is irreversible. Neuroscience is also showing that even well into adulthood, the human brain has remarkable plasticity, meaning it can be rewired in positive ways as well as negative. Here is what happens when addiction hijacks the brain, and why addiction treatment must be seen as a comprehensive medical process and not just the encouragement of stronger willpower on the part of the person affected.

Many Drugs Mimic the Brain’s Own Neurotransmitters

Many drugs, whether prescribed, procured over the counter, or acquired illicitly, affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that cause brain processes to be carried out so that humans can live, love, work, play, and survive, both individually, and as a species.

Many addictive drugs “mimic” natural neurotransmitters in that they are able to attach to neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. But they are not neurotransmitters, and the effects they have can be tremendously varied. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the brain, having been tricked into thinking there are plenty of neurotransmitters circulating, produces less of them. Then when the drugs wear off, people suffer severely.

The Dopamine Flood

The human brain is designed to prompt you to repeat life-sustaining activities by activating its own reward circuits, and dopamine is one of the chief brain chemicals that triggers this. The act of taking drugs such as opioids, cocaine, or amphetamines, can trigger massive rushes of dopamine.

As a result, you feel great for a short time and are prompted by your own brain to seek more of the substance. A dopamine rush can trigger euphoria, which reinforces the drug-using behavior. When you take drugs and get a dopamine release of up to 10 times the normal amount of dopamine that comes from behaviors like eating and sex, suddenly the naturally rewarding behaviors are less important. When you can eat a great meal and get some dopamine, or take a drug and get several times as much of that feel-good dopamine, it is clear what you are going to be inclined to do.

Normal Neurotransmitter Use May Be Completely Disrupted

Normal creation and recycling of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, are disrupted with repeated drug use. The brain may produce less dopamine on its own, or it may reduce the number of dopamine receptors available to receive the substance. This is what causes people with addictions to seek more and more of the substance to experience the same level of pleasure. Eventually, even the drug is unable to produce pleasure, but it must be consumed to maintain a feeling of something approaching “normal.”

Physical Changes to the Motivation Center of the Brain

With sustained drug use, the brain’s motivation center is severely affected. This primitive area of the brain becomes rewired so that normal, healthy functions, such as eating right, drinking water, and even breathing become less important than using the drug. You can be smart, accomplished, and disciplined, and yet your brain can override your ability to resist addictive substances. In other words, addiction is so much more than lack of willpower. It is, in fact, physical damage to the structure of the brain.

Holistic addiction treatment helps people with addictions detox and then slowly rewire the brain so that the addictive substance is no longer necessary in order to feel pleasure. That does not mean it is easy. In fact, many people in addiction treatment find that they have co-occurring mental health issues that must be addressed at the same time through medication and counseling.

When a jetliner is hijacked, simply kicking the hijackers out at 30,000 feet is not an option, because it can take the entire plane down with it. Likewise, when the brain is hijacked by addiction, recovery involves capturing the hijacking substances and learning how to come down safely, so they can be dealt with properly. If drugs or alcohol have hijacked your brain and your life, help is available, and recovery is possible. We encourage you to contact us at any time. Addiction treatment that takes the whole person into account and works toward a healthy body, mind, and lifestyle has turned millions of lives back around for the better.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.