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How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

Drug and alcohol addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a complex and destructive disease that affects more than 46 million people in the United States. Substance addiction not only takes a toll on an individual’s physical and mental health, but it also significantly impacts the brain, causing significant changes in its chemistry, structure, and function. 

Understanding Addiction: A Brief Overview

When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, it’s crucial to have a solid understanding of the nature of this disease. Addiction is a complex condition involving the compulsive use of drugs or alcohol despite the harmful consequences they bring. It is not simply a matter of weak willpower or lack of moral character. Addiction is defined by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIH) as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that affects the reward system and impairs decision-making abilities. It makes functional changes to circuits in the brain involved in self-control, reward, and stress. Drugs and alcohol change the brain’s chemistry, altering neurotransmitters that regulate pleasure, motivation, and mood. They essentially take over the brain’s natural reward circuitry, leading to the compulsive use and seeking of these substances.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

The brain is a complex organ, made up of various regions and circuits that work together to regulate our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When drugs and alcohol are introduced into the body, they directly interfere with brain regions, leading to significant changes in its structure, particularly in regions associated with decision-making, memory, and impulse control. The prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and reward system are a few of the many regions affected by substance use disorders.

  • Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and judgment. Drug and alcohol addiction causes damage to the prefrontal cortex, which can result in impulsive and reckless behavior as individuals become less capable of weighing the consequences of their actions.
  • Hippocampus: Substance addiction can lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus, impairing an individual’s ability to retain new information and recall memories. This can result in memory deficits and difficulties with cognitive functioning.
  • Reward System: The nucleus accumbens is responsible for creating the experience of pleasure and motivation. Drugs such as opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol stimulate the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, producing intense feelings of pleasure and euphoria. However, with prolonged substance abuse, the brain’s reward system becomes dysregulated, leading to a diminished ability to experience pleasure from everyday activities and natural rewards, such as food or social interaction. This feeds the cycle of addiction, as individuals seek out the substance to achieve the same level of pleasure they once experienced.

Effects of Addiction on Cognitive Functioning

Drug and alcohol addiction takes a significant toll on cognitive functioning–the mental processes that enable a person to acquire knowledge, process information, and solve problems. Unfortunately, substance addiction disrupts these essential cognitive functions, leading to significant impairments that can persist even after the substance abuse stops. 

One of the most notable cognitive impairments associated with addiction is attention and concentration deficits. Drugs and alcohol disrupt the brain’s ability to focus and keep attention on tasks, making it difficult to concentrate and complete daily activities. This can have a detrimental impact on work or school performance, as well as overall productivity. 

Memory deficits are another common cognitive consequence of addiction. Prolonged substance abuse can impair short-term and long-term memory, making it difficult to remember recent events, retain new information, and recall memories. This can create difficulties in daily functioning, such as forgetting appointments or important tasks. 

Are You Struggling with Addiction?

Anyone can become addicted to alcohol or drugs, but addiction is treatable. If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, help is available. At Anabranch Recovery Center in Terre Haute, IN, our team of skilled professionals can help you reclaim control of your life. They will provide you with the tools you need to attain sobriety. Take the first step on the path to recovery. Contact us today.

About the author

Terry Hurley is a retired educational professional and freelance writer with more than fifty years of experience. A former reading specialist and learning center director, Terry loved her years working with children in the educational field. She has written extensively for print and online publications specializing in education and health issues. For the last six years, her writing focus has been on addiction and mental health issues.

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