Scientists once thought the human brain was a static organ when fully developed. They believed if it suffered an injury, accident, or other types of damage, it would not completely recover. They now know that the brain can heal itself when damaged. Although individual neurons may be unrepairable, the brain can forge new neural pathways to repair itself. It is capable of adapting at both the functional and structural levels in response to the body’s experience.
Neuroplasticity: A Unique Capability
Interestingly, the brain does not require injury or damage to create new neural pathways. Whenever a person thinks new thoughts, adopts new habits, or practices new skills, they form and strengthen new connections in the brain. This unique capability is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity or neural plasticity, is the ability of the brain’s neural network to change through reorganization and growth. “Neuro” refers to the nerve cells or neurons in the brain, and “plasticity” refers to the brain’s moldability or malleability. Approximately 86 billion neurons make up the human brain. Neuroplasticity refers to their capacity to create new connections, reorganize pathways, and even create new neurons.
Although there are several types of neuroplasticity, the main two types are functional and structural. Functional plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to move functions to an undamaged area of the brain from a damaged area. Structural plasticity refers to the capability of the brain to make changes to its physical structure due to learning.
Neuroplasticity & Forming an Addiction
Every time a person develops a habit, the brain creates a neural pathway supporting it. Each time they repeat the habit, the neural pathway becomes stronger. When a person has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, they repeat their addictive behavior regularly. Substance addiction is formed through neuroplasticity as the brain becomes trained by the person’s repetitive substance use behavior. Over time, the brain rewires itself, making continued substance use feel like the only possible thing to do.
The addictive behavior of using drugs or alcohol causes the individual’s brain to flood with dopamine. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that dopamine release feels very rewarding and teaches the brain to remember what caused it to happen so it can happen again. As the person repeats the addictive behavior, they need more and more of the substance to get the same effect they desire, strengthening the neural pathways of addiction.
Neural Plasticity & Addiction Recovery
In addiction recovery, treatment focuses on changing or replacing the habit of using alcohol or drugs with positive habits such as enjoying hobbies or exercising. In recovery, when a person develops a new positive habit, their brain creates a new neural pathway to support it. As the individual continually repeats the positive habit, the neural path strengthens. Since the neural pathways of the old destructive habit of using drugs or alcohol are not being used, they weaken over time.
Harvard Health Publishing explains that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an example of a widely used addiction treatment approach that uses neuroplasticity to heal damage to the brain caused by drug or alcohol addiction. Evidence suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy can be effective in promoting lasting recovery. CBT teaches a person to use functional analysis and learned skills to recognize, avoid, and learn ways to deal with situations in which they would likely drink alcohol or use drugs. Clients learn how their feelings, thoughts, and actions are related. CBT helps clients be proactive in their recovery.
Contingency management is another therapy that makes use of neuroplasticity in addiction recovery. This type of evidence-based behavioral therapy provides a reward such as a movie ticket or voucher to people who meet certain goals in addiction recovery. This treatment approach is based on a form of learning called operant conditioning theory, where a positively reinforced behavior is usually repeated.
Mindfulness Meditation & Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is also at play in mindfulness meditation, a powerful addiction recovery tool. When a person practices regular mindfulness meditation, their brains change in ways that help them attain long-term sobriety. They create permanent neural pathways that assist them toward a positive response to stressful situations and cravings. They are more in control of their actions and behave in deliberate, thoughtful, healthy ways.
Do You Need Help?
Addiction to drugs or alcohol can happen to anyone. If you or a loved one struggles with addiction, help is available. You are not alone. At Anabranch Recovery Center, located in Terre Haute, Indiana, our caring professionals will help you gain the skills needed for a sustainable and joyful recovery. Call us today and begin your journey on the path to recovery.
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.