How Does Addiction Affect Brain?

When suffering from substance abuse disorder, it is in your best interest to learn and understand the effects of addiction and the brain.

Understanding Addiction and the Human Brain

Addiction makes your brain depend on a specific substance by making the body constantly crave the drug of dependence. This results in the user often losing control over its use, and they will continue to use the drug despite any adverse effects that arise from it. Some substances may slow down or speed up your central nervous system (CNS), along with specific functions essential for supporting life, such as blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and body temperature.

Addiction and the Brain


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The Biochemistry of Addiction

Levels of some of your brain’s chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters (both inhibitory and excitatory), are also affected by addiction.
The most common excitatory neurotransmitter in your brain is glutamate, while the most common inhibitory neurotransmitter is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Neurotransmitters that Influence Addiction

Other neurotransmitters that play an important role in addiction include:
  • Dopamine: This affects your brain by regulating moods and enhancing pleasure, and it affects your ability to move around, rewarding and reinforcing behaviors, motivation, and attention. You will receive dopamine in drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and other opioids, stimulants, and ecstasy.
  • SerotoninThis alters your brain’s normal functions by stabilizing mood and regulating emotions. Serotonin results from ecstasy and hallucinogens.
  • GABAGABA acts as a natural tranquilizer, mitigating your stress response and lowering anxiety levels as well as slowing down functions of the central nervous system. GABA typically can be found in drugs such as benzodiazepines.
  • NorepinephrineThis gives the body an adrenaline feeling, making you more attentive and energetic. Norepinephrine is often called the stress hormone. It speeds up the central nervous system to the “fight-or-flight” response. This is found in drugs such as opioids and ecstasy.

How Does the Brain Work?

Your brain contains billions of nerve cells and neurons organized in patterns that communicate thought, emotion, behavior, movement, and sensation. A sophisticated highway system of nerves links your brain to the rest of your body so that this communication can happen in nanoseconds. Addiction changes how the neurons in the human brain send, receive, and process signals through neurotransmitters.

Is Addiction a Brain Disease?

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder and mental illness characterized by compulsive drug seeking and continued use despite harmful consequences. This can create long-lasting changes in the brain.
This also has to do with the brain chemistry of addiction; for example, how will your brain react to stress when you don’t use the drugs that your body has become accustomed to? With addiction, the brain’s response exaggerates negative emotions and aggravates despair. It can drastically alter the chemistry of how your brain processes and utilizes these neurotransmitters.

What Are the Main Areas of the Brain Associated with Addiction?

Scientists have thoroughly researched addiction and figured out that three areas of the brain are important in the start, development, and maintenance of substance use disorders. These areas include the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.

The Basal Ganglia

All addictive drugs, including alcohol, opioids, and cocaine, produce a euphoric sensation of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia. This area controls rewards and your ability to learn based on that rewarding system. As you continuously abuse substances, these circuits adapt. Therefore, you feel the need to use more of the drug that has led to the substance abuse disorder.

The Extended Amygdala

The extended amygdala coordinates reactions to stress. For a person without substance abuse, the extended amygdala produces bursts of neurotransmitters that are like a painful stick which push your brain to escape unpleasant situations. During withdrawal, there are pain bursts that make it difficult for those with significant substance abuse disorders to cease using.

The Prefrontal Cortex

If you are someone struggling with addiction, your altered ability to stop using drugs or alcohol has to do with deficits in the function of your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved in the executive process. This means you might not be able to fight urges even when the drugs are detrimental to your health. Your prefrontal cortex performs some vital tasks such as self-monitoring and a delayed reward system as well.

Rewarding the Brain

Your brain has its reward system. The brain’s reward system acts as a circuit that causes feelings of pleasure when it’s “activated” by something that gives you pleasure, like eating good food or being happy. When the reward circuit is activated, your brain is alerted that something important is happening and that the reaction is worth remembering and repeating.

Why Are Most Drugs More Addictive Than Natural Rewards?

Nearly all addictive drugs directly affect the brain’s reward system. This works by increasing the amount of dopamine in the circuit. Dopamine is one of the most popular neurotransmitters present in regions of the brain. The region containing dopamine controls movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, and reinforcement of pleasurable behaviors.
When activated at normal levels, this system rewards your natural behaviors. However, when drugs overstimulate your system, it produces effects that make you use the drug repeatedly.

How Does Addiction Develop?

Addiction can develop when you or a loved one find yourself craving the drug, losing control while under the influence, or continuing to use it even when you experience adverse consequences to your health.

Addiction changes the brain by rewiring it to respond to delivering pleasure positively and negatively while altering other activities such as learning and motivation.

Pleasure Principle

Your brain records all pleasures at the same time, whether it is from a stimulant, a reward, or a sexual encounter. Dopamine release is so connected to pleasurable feelings and makes this region of your brain the brain’s pleasure center. The reports by NIDA showed that over twenty million people in the United States were diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder in the past year.

All drugs that enter the body, from nicotine to heroin, cause a powerful surge of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which is where dopamine is releasd.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

Your brain is comprised of many regions that function separately to perform different tasks. The brain’s communication network coordinates the brain’s activities with the help of these different regions. To put it simply: addictions can alter the way your brain regions function normally.
Addiction affects your brain can be short-term or long-term, depending on the type of substance disorder and duration of the habit.

Short-Term Effects

Some of the short-term effects of substance abuse disorders include:
  • Impaired decision making
  • Impulsivity and compulsivity
  • Drug-seeking behavior
  • Cravings
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Relapse causes 
  • Stress regulation and withdrawal

Long-Term Effects

Some of the long-term effects can include:
  • Heath Problems: An increased strain on your liver and lungs puts you at risk of significant lung disease. It also causes kidney problems, liver damage, liver failure, seizures, stroke, respiratory infections, and overdose that may lead to death. 
  • Mental Disorders: If you or someone you love is chronically using drugs or suffering from alcohol addiction, it can lead to changes in your brain, which can lead to mental health issues including paranoia, depression, anxiety, aggression, or hallucinations.
  • Brain Damage: You can get brain injuries from the drugs directly, or substance use disorder-related consequences, such as fracturing your skull from an intoxicated fall or other types of trauma. 
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): This is a severe and persistent condition instigated by an external force, such as when a hard object hits you on the head, making your brain moves inside the skull and subsequently damages it. 
  • Acquired Brain Injury (ABI): This can occur when your brain experiences pressure, probably from a tumor or neurological illness such as stroke.
  • Brain Hypoxia: This is due to overdoses other curable changes such as mild brain atrophy (brain shrinkage) and changes to white matter.

Therapies for Brain Recovery After Addiction

There are many options available for those who need help recovering after a substance abuse disorder has caused damage to their brain, or to other areas of their body as well.


Generally, the first and most crucial step toward sobriety is medication-assisted detox (MAD). This step consists of approved drugs being prescribed to help to wean the patient off alcohol or drugs slowly. The medical team will give you medication to alleviate discomfort caused by severe withdrawal symptoms.

Biofeedback Therapy

This process will assist you in regaining greater awareness of many physiological functions of your own body, mainly by using electronic or other instruments to eventually manipulate your body’s systems. This can greatly help after substance abuse might have drastically changed how your body works.

Behavioral Therapies

These therapies consist of counseling and group therapy sessions to help you build positive coping strategies and develop problem-solving skills that will help you as you continue to recover from substance abuse disorder.

Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Addiction at Concise Recovery

At Concise Recovery, we don’t focus on only treating your drug and alcohol addictions. We give you a holistic treatment plan that involves your body, soul, and mind. Our interventions are tailored and made for your specific problem to provide you with a better chance of full recovery.

drug addiction and the brain   

Addiction Treatment Programs

Our addiction treatment programs include both detoxification and potential inpatient and outpatient programs.

Detoxing is the first stage in the recovery process. At this stage, a professional medical team helps you by calming physical distress and reducing psychological concerns associated with withdrawal from substances or alcohol.

Afterwards, inpatient programs are live-in treatment options that come immediately after medical detoxification. You receive supervised treatment and structured care plans to overcome your addiction. Besides the medications, you also receive individual and group therapy. On the other hand, outpatient programs allow you to attend therapeutic and medical treatment on your own time if you cannot stay at the facility. You can be treated regularly at a substance abuse treatment center, community health clinic, hospital-affiliated clinic, or other facilities.

Get Help Today

Reach out to one of our always available coordinators at Concise Recovery today. Your life or the life of your loved one is highly dependent on how fast you seek intervention for them. Get the recovery you deserve. Contact us at Concise Recovery.