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How Does Addiction Affect the Brain? 4 Vital Facts

By John McGuire
Addiction is a brain disease. New studies on the neurobiology of addiction teach us how the addicted brain works. Here are some facts you’ll want to know.

What is addiction, and how does it affect the brain? According to a 2019 article published by Physiological Reviews, sustained substance misuse can alter your brain’s reward circuitry and diminish your impulse control to prevent drug consumption. Such detrimental changes in the brain can last for years after stopping drug use. But can something be done about these harmful brain alterations? Read on to learn four vital facts about how addiction affects the brain, and the hope that treatment offers.  

1. Addiction is classified as a brain disease. 

A good starting point is to realize that doctors classify addiction as a brain disease. “Addiction is considered a chronic relapsing disease of the brain,” Roneet Lev, MD, a board certified addiction physician and host of the High Truths on Drugs and Addiction podcast, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “It is a chronic disease like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.” 

2. Addiction affects specific regions in the brain.

There are specific areas in the brain that addiction alters. We know this because of advances in imaging technology of brain functions. “Structural changes of the brain can be seen on MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] and PET [positron emission tomography] scans of the brain,” says Lev. 

The regions of the brain most affected by addiction are the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, and the amygdala, according to the US Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. The clinical impact of these changes include the following:

  • An increased susceptibility to cues in the environment that trigger you to want to drink or use. 
  • A decreased sensitivity to normal levels of pleasure. 
  • An increased activation of the parts of the brain that respond to stress.
  • A decrease in executive control, meaning your ability to make decisions, control emotions, and curb impulses is compromised.

3. The primary neurochemical in addiction is dopamine. 

The structural changes in the brain after drug use are called “neuroplastic adaptations,” meaning that the drug changes the structure of the brain circuits. During substance abuse induced plasticity, this process is generally driven by the excessive release of dopamine caused by drugs, according to the 2019  Physiological Reviews article.

“Drug ingestion causes an exaggerated surge of dopamine, up to 10 times more than natural rewards,” says Lev.

4. The changes in the brain may be reversible.

The good news is that the structural damage caused with drug use may be reversible. Time alone without drugs will start the process of brain restructuring. How long it takes will depend on how long you used drugs and what you were taking. 

There is also robust evidence that various drugs, some of which have been approved by the FDA, can help alleviate the physical symptoms of detox, withdrawal, and drug dependence. For example, the medication naltrexone is regularly and successfully used to help people quit alcohol and opioids.

Medication-assisted treatment also typically includes therapy, which can significantly improve the recovery of your brain. For instance, psychotherapy can positively affect the areas of your brain that help control emotions, cognition, and memory. 

Physical exercise is another way to accelerate your brain’s healing after addiction. Exercise improves executive control and brain blood flow, according to the Recovery Research Institute. 

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.