Today, we will talk about the way the addicted brain works to better understand what drug addiction does to the most important human organ on a physiological level.
When you sit down to eat an ice cream sundae, how do you feel? You probably feel happy or excited in anticipation of the yummy treat you’re about to devour. This is because your brain recognizes the food as something that brings you pleasure. When you’re about to eat an ice cream sundae, your brain releases more dopamine. The same thing happens to a person suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism. This is how the addicted brain works.
How dopamine works with pleasure
Dopamine is a chemical messenger that carries signals between brain cells. Dopamine is responsible for sending many messages, and one of them is about reward. Whenever you receive a reward, like an ice cream sundae, dopamine tells the brain to get more of this good stuff.
As you get to the bottom of that sundae, the brain sends fewer and fewer signals. This is why it’s less desirable to eat a second bowl.
How drugs cause a high
Most drugs also lead to an increase of dopamine in the brain. But it’s different than with ice cream. The brain releases a controlled amount of dopamine when you experience natural pleasures. Drugs cause an unnatural dopamine surge. This causes the euphoric “high” that keeps drug users coming back for more.
But there’s more to what drugs do to the addicted brain than a simple dopamine surge. In fact, drugs alter how the entire pleasure center of the brain works. Once the brain experiences the dopamine surge, the hippocampus creates memories of the pleasure, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to stimuli.
Different drugs work in the brain in different ways. For example, heroin and LSD mimic the effects of a natural neurotransmitter like dopamine. PCP blocks the brain’s receptors to stop messages from getting through. Cocaine interferes with the neurons that bring neurotransmitters back to the neurons they came from. And methamphetamines cause the brain to release more neurotransmitters.
Drug addiction in the brain
Have you ever turned on the car and forgot how loud you left the radio volume? Ouch! Sensory overload. You reach over and quickly turn it all the way down. A similar thing happens in the brain when you use drugs.
Drugs provide such an intense surge that the brain doesn’t know how to handle it. Brain receptors become overwhelmed, and the brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors. The impact of this is what we know as tolerance. You need to take more and more of the drug to produce the same effect because your brain keeps “turning down the volume.”
Before long, pleasure almost completely subsides but your brain still holds on to the memory of that feeling. You still want it. Whenever you see something that reminds you of the drug, your brain reminds you of the high. This is a craving.
The addicted brain of yours is now hardwired to seek that intense pleasure. You need it. Every action from here forward becomes revolved around seeking that high. Nothing else will do.
Now, imagine you’re back in the car with the volume turned down. You hear the faint intro of your favorite song coming on, so you try to raise the volume to a reasonable level. It doesn’t work. Your car audio is stuck on barely audible. This is what’s happening in the addicted brain.
Your brain gets used to a constant flow of intense dopamine, so it keeps the volume turned down. It stops producing dopamine and eliminates dopamine receptors. It’s impossible to feel pleasure from anything less intense because your brain is constantly bracing itself for the drug.
Recovery in the addicted brain
The more you use drugs, the more dependent your brain becomes on them. This makes it harder to recover from drug addiction.
When you stop taking drugs, your brain has to re-adjust to functioning without the drug. It will eventually turn the volume back up and allow you to feel natural pleasure again, but this will take time. In the first weeks or months of recovery, many people feel sad, hostile, restless or irritable.
Some studies have shown that meditation can help naturally increase the brain’s dopamine levels in recovery. For example, a 2002 study found that meditation boosted participants’ dopamine levels by as much as 65 percent.
With or without meditation, the addicted brain should adjust in weeks to months of recovery. Still, you may always struggle with cravings and triggers. Cravings should weaken over time, but the brain will always remember the pleasurable “high” feeling you got from the drug.
Addiction makes changes to a user’s brain, and some may be permanent. This is why it’s so dangerous for an addict to use again if even just one more time.
Addiction is a disease
A disease disrupts normal, healthy functioning of a vital organ. Heart disease affects the heart. Addiction affects the brain. Both are preventable and treatable, but they can last a lifetime if left alone.
Although an addict may make the first choice to take a drug, no one chooses to become addicted. Because drug addiction changes the brain so drastically, it can also drastically change a person’s personality. No one would choose this life for themselves.