The human brain is a complex organ that regulates bodily function, allows us to experience and interpret our surroundings, and shapes our thoughts, emotions, and behavior to the outside world. Drug use can alter the way our brains perform essential duties, and can create compulsive behavior that spurns addiction.
The main areas of the brain affected by addiction include:
- The brainstem: Controls basic bodily functions essential to life, such as cardiac and respiratory function, consciousness, and sleep cycles.
- The cerebral cortex: The largest portion of the brain, and the mission control center. It controls, speech, memory, movement, and intelligence.
- The limbic system: Contains the reward circuit which links other parts of the brain together and regulates our ability to feel pleasure.
The brain is full of neurons and neurotransmitters which communicate with one another through electrical impulses. Drugs flood this communication system by interfering with the brain’s normal processing, and can even change how it functions. Drugs are chemicals, and different chemical structures work differently on how the brain is designed to work. The two main ways drugs alter the brain are:
- Imitation of the brain’s natural chemical messengers
- Overstimulation of the reward circuit (limbic system) in the brain
Drugs like heroin and marijuana mimic naturally occurring neurotransmitters in the body which fools it into sending abnormal messages throughout the brain. These drugs don’t work the same as naturally occurring transmitters and can cause serious problems for the brain and body.
Stimulants, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, cause an excessive release of dopamine ( a naturally occurring neurotransmitter), and can prevent it from recycling in neurons. This excessive flood of dopamine causes exaggerated messages in the brain, and once the drug isn’t peaking anymore, the brain begins looking for more excitement in the form of a line, smoke, injection, or pill.
Cue addiction. Drugs of abuse affect the reward circuit by flooding the limbic system with dopamine, which creates the high associated with drug use. Once this is activated, the brain remembers how good it felt, and begins seeking that same feeling without a second thought. More and more is needed to achieve that first high, yet it is never fully achieved. The dopamine receptors begin making less dopamine, and the individual develops a tolerance, needing more of the drug, even to just feel normal. The cycle is vicious and exhausting.
Rehabilitation is a simple way to rewire the brain. Detox is the first step, then the work begins. Treatment is a process that replenishes and develops new, naturally-occurring neurotransmitters that addiction destroyed. The brain and body can be very resilient, and the sooner action is taken to start the healing process, the better the chance an addict or alcoholic has of making a full recovery.
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