The Neuroscience of Addiction


The methodology behind treating addictive disorders in the 21st century has evolved immensely over the past 100 years through scientific advancements in the field of psychology. Many of these advancements are due to recontextualizing addiction around the 1930s as a medical condition. The inception of new fields of science studying the thoughts and inner workings of the human brain were some of the first steps in beginning to address addiction as a condition that targets the behavioral patterns of both the mind and body. Psychology has taken leaps and bounds in the modern treatment of addictive disorders helping patients to better understand their negative behavioral patterns while addressing any underlying trauma or mental health disorders that may further contribute to substance misuse. But what of addictions more physiological components?

Until recently, the physiological component of addictive disorders has largely been based on neuroscience theories with a serious dearth of real-time evidence. However, more recent technological advancements have begun to further theoretical progress as brain scans and the resultant mapping of the neurological design of brain functions have provided a significantly better understanding of how addiction affects the brains of those afflicted with a substance misuse disorder.

What Is Neuroscience?

Neuroscience is a field of science that studies the many facets of the nervous system—this includes the brain, spinal cord, and the nerves that spread throughout the body’s extremities, muscles, and organs. The field of neuroscience is vast, and although not all neuroscientists directly study the brain, the design of the central nervous system is so interconnected that one field of neuroscientific brain study also tends to overlap with the study of cellular and molecular biology as well as human behavior and cognition. Neuroscience utilizes a variety of developed computer simulations and imaging tools to help them understand and gain new insights into the physical anatomy of the brain and its relationship to the rest of the body. Recent developments in the ability to scan living brain tissue in real-time scenarios have allowed neuroscientists to effectively map out the inner workings of the brain; these detailed images can help scientists better assess damaged areas of the brain as well as understand how they may affect motor skills and cognitive-behavioral patterns.

This Is Your Brain on Drugs and Alcohol

For any child of the ’80s or ’90s, the title above may bring back memories of PSA commercials with cracked eggs frying in pans that were intended to exemplify the dangers of drug use to the brain. Although this amusing jaunt down memory lane may offer laughs and multiple repeat youtube viewing sessions joining the ranks of such great drug PSA’s like Reefer Madness, the science is altogether missing from such efforts—efforts we reward with an A for effort in recognizing a problem within the community and an F in execution for a severe lack of scientific basis of presented information. As science has gradually caught up with initial theories through such practices as neuroimaging and scans of brain activity, a better understanding of the science behind addictive tendencies and behavioral patterns is gradually developing.

The brain is made up of billions of neurons each sending and receiving electrical impulses that execute the everyday actions, feelings, and thoughts of the human experience. These electrical impulses direct how we taste, feel emotions, and experience pleasurable activities. The function of neurons in the brain is a communicator; these billions of cells are largely involved in sending signals from one region of the brain to another ultimately triggering actions, retrieving memories, as well as creating the experience we describe as being alive.

As complex as this sounds, many of our actions are still governed by a basic pleasure reward system that mainly takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain by the release of dopamine. Dopamine has been linked to the creation of long-term memory as well as pleasure reward systems that guide many human actions. Repeated use of drugs and alcohol essentially hijacks this area of the brain’s natural dopamine release system. Under normal circumstances, the prefrontal cortex is on the receiving end of a steady supply of low-level dopamine. Drugs and alcohol cause the brain to flood the natural receptors with dopamine, resulting in that feel-good high addiction recovery patients so desperately seek out in the throes of an addictive disorder.

Not only are the dopamine receptors gradually being conditioned to recognize cues—both interior and exterior—associated with the pleasure reward of illicit substances, but by depleting the dopamine and desensitizing receptors, addiction recovery patients have inadvertently reduced their chances to avoid repeat drug use. The inhibitory systems of the brain no longer have enough dopamine to create those lasting memories that allow individuals to weigh options of pleasure versus pain in typical scenarios.

Benefits of Neuroscience in the Treatment of Addictive Disorders

The more recent advances in the past two decades in the field of neuroscience have begun to illuminate the physiological aspects of an addictive disorder. Although studies remain in their early stages, the benefits are already proving to be far-reaching providing more effective and site-specific standards for treatment methods of addictive disorders. Framing addictive disorders as an evidenced brain disease has also helped to further reduce stigmas that plague addiction recovery patients even today.

Addiction is a complicated disease that affects behavioral patterns by targeting the mind and body. Thankfully, advancements in the scientific fields of psychology and neuroscience have greatly improved the effectiveness of addiction recovery treatment methods. If you or someone you love is struggling to cope with substance misuse issues as a result of an addictive disorder, then Choice House has dual-diagnosis treatment methods that can help. We offer men the opportunity to achieve initial sobriety and help them to learn the necessary skills to maintain that sobriety through a variety of therapeutic modalities. Located in the Boulder County area of Colorado, our addiction recovery treatment services are offered through either a 90-day inpatient program, an intensive outpatient service, as well as the chance to take up residency at our sober living campus. At Choice House, we utilize scientific, evidence-based addiction recovery practices to help patients begin to re-build a sober foundation based on love and empathy better preparing them for the challenges that await once leaving treatment. For more information regarding Choice House facilities or our programs of service, please give us a call at (720) 577-4422.

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