February 8, 2018 Felicia Durling

This is Your Brain on Addiction

From alcohol to simulants, psychoactives to depressants, the substances we abuse create pleasure in our minds. Located within the cortex, one of the larger parts of the brain, is the nucleus accumbens where neurotransmitters reside. Neurotransmitters are small messengers which are responsible for communicating with the rest of the brain. In the case of addiction, one neurotransmitter in particular is of special importance. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of pleasure. Pleasure is communicated, meaning dopamine is released, when substances enter the bloodstream of the brain. Logically, the more substances we use and the more directly we use them (i.e. smoking or injecting) the more dopamine is released.

Nearby, the hippocampus makes note of how quickly substances create such a surging release of pleasure and store it to memory. Just beside the hippocampus is the amygdala which conditions how the brain responds to the stimulus of substances. Here, the foundation of craving is built. The amygdala starts creating stored responses in the brain to crave the pleasurable substance whenever it is stimulated. If we drank after a stressful day, our amygdala conditions the stimulus of stress to trigger a desire for drugs or alcohol.

Simultaneously, while addictive behaviors are training the memory for pleasure, they are also training the brain in learning. Glutamate, another neurotransmitter, creates learning based on survival. Communicating with the midbrain, the center for survival, glutamate puts great emphasis on the necessity of drugs or alcohol. The midbrain operates the basic functions of humans: eat, sleep, reproduce and kill. With repeated use, the brain learns to rely on substances, not just out of pleasure or dependency but as a means for survival. Substances soon surpass eating, sleeping, and other survival modes.

Repeated use also contributes to the compulsion associated with craving. Responsible for executive decision making, planning, and task execution, the prefrontal cortex is altered by drugs and alcohol. Over time, this area of the brain changes the way it responds to substances. Rather than just understanding that a substance is pleasurable, the prefrontal cortex finds itself unable to abstain from actively choosing to find the source of pleasure. All behaviors and actions start focusing on finding more of what creates pleasure.

The Center for Life Change is committed to helping addicts and alcoholics overcome their cravings and find relief from addiction by understanding its nature and taking treatment steps toward reprogramming the dopamine circuit in the brain. Recover is within reach. Give us a call.

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