The Science Behind Addiction: How Substances Affect the Brain

How Substances Affect The Brain
How Substances Affect the Brain

Substances affect the brain in several ways and can lead to substance use disorder, also known as addiction. The brain yearns for the drug’s reward when an addiction takes hold, and sadly, chronic addiction can have deadly consequences. What’s worse is that this problem is growing more serious every year. A particularly concerning example is Pennsylvania, which recorded 5,153 opioid overdose deaths in 2022 (a nearly 20% increase compared to 2019). However, to address the issue, we must first understand it. So, let’s take a look at the science behind addiction.

Ways Substances Affect the Brain

Some may believe that persons who are dependent on drugs or alcohol are weak-willed, morally reprehensible, and able to quit at any time. Still, addiction is a complicated illness, and good intentions alone are rarely enough to help someone overcome their addiction. Physiological dependence on a drug alters the brain in ways that make it impossible, even for willful users, to stop using it. Numerous functional alterations in the brain are linked to various elements of addiction, as per a study on the reward circuitry in addiction. Increasing mental health awareness can help dispel these myths and support those struggling with addiction.

The Addiction’s Biochemistry

A variety of factors, including the kind and quantity of drugs taken, the frequency of use, and the level of addiction, influence how the brain reacts to addiction. For example, when someone uses cocaine, they will experience euphoria. That happens as a result of cocaine’s psychoactive effects on the part of the brain that regulates motivation and pleasure. There is a brief but intense spike in dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes most people feel happy. There may be a strong desire to keep using it because this feeling might be so strong.

Unless they receive assistance in overcoming a potentially fatal addiction, drug abusers are more likely to continue abusing drugs. People also experience bodily symptoms in addition to the chemical’s effects on their nervous systems once the substances reach their brains. These symptoms can include a fast heartbeat, anxiety, nausea, hallucinations, and other unsettling feelings that the person has little control over. Likewise, they can become obsessed with abusing the drug to keep up their habit at any cost. Substance addiction can have such a stronghold that people start acting strangely, which might worry friends and family.

The Development of Addictions

The brain controls respiration, coordination, emotion, temperature, and decision-making. This important bodily organ affects habits, compulsions, appetites, and physical experiences. A strong and toxic chemical can cause people who abuse drugs like heroin or benzodiazepines to change how their brain functions.

Drugs impact a person’s body and mind by interacting with the limbic system in the brain to release powerful, feel-good feelings. People keep using drugs to sustain the strong feelings of well-being that their brains produce; this leads to a vicious cycle of drug usage and strong highs. They eventually take the medication just to feel normal.

Brain, Substance Abuse, and Withdrawals

Substances affect the brain by reinforcing negative behavior. When perpetuating a loop of highs and lows, it promotes drug addiction. Once a person stops abusing a substance, they may experience despair and depression, turning their life into an emotional roller coaster. When someone quits abruptly, there are severe psychological, physiological, and emotional effects. Withdrawal symptoms are typically stronger for certain substances, like heroin.

Heroin Withdrawal

When quitting substances as persistently addictive as heroin, individuals often experience restlessness, muscle pains, troubled sleeping, cold flashes, diarrhea, and vomiting. Given the severity of these symptoms, DIY home detox usually fails. Likewise, there’s a big risk the person will overdose when the symptoms become unbearable, and they use heroin again. Therefore, nobody should attempt heroin detox alone.

The good news is that there is specialized help available. Especially in states like Pennsylvania, which have faced high rates of drug-induced deaths, more and more centers offer comprehensive help. In particular, this state is esteemed for its heroin rehab centers with 24/7 medical detox supervision. Once the initial detox is complete, the recovery from heroin addiction can start in a controlled setting.

Why do Some Individuals Develop Addictions While Others Don’t?

Addiction is not a result of substance abuse alone. It is a multifaceted disorder that develops according to an individual’s situation. The following are the most often found risk factors for addiction:

  • Biology: Studies have indicated that 40–60% of an individual’s susceptibility to addiction stems from hereditary factors. In addition to a family history of the disease, epigenetics is also taken into account, which means “the effects environmental factors have on a person’s gene expression.” A behavioral health condition like anxiety or depression also raises your chance of addiction.
  • Environment: It has been demonstrated that experiencing trauma increases a person’s likelihood of acquiring a drug use disorder. These encounters may take place at home, at school, or in the neighborhood.

Early drug use can also raise the likelihood of addiction. Because of the intense way that drugs are absorbed by the body (and the speed at which the high wears off), snorting or injecting drugs can also raise the chance of developing an addiction to those substances.

So, what makes certain persons more susceptible to addiction than others? A person’s particular brain chemistry and life circumstances ultimately determine the answer. People with addictions typically seek solace or healing in some form.

Brain-Based Addiction Treatments

Those with addictions who check into a facility are given access to cutting-edge treatments as well as medication. Biofeedback therapy is a popular method of treating addiction by calming and stabilizing the brain. It enables a specialist to keep an eye on the brain. When enhancing brain activity can lessen the impact of addiction and harmful impulses.

Electroencephalograms are used in biofeedback (EEGs). EEGs can be beneficial for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder and other brain disorders, as well as for those who have experienced traumatic brain injuries. Biofeedback lowers involuntary functions and stress. Also, guided imagery, meditation, and muscular relaxation may be a part of this therapy.

Biofeedback helps people with involuntary functions like heartbeat, blood pressure, and muscle contraction when used in conjunction with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). One kind of biofeedback is neurofeedback, also known as EEQ therapy. This therapy is a form of cognitive training that keeps an eye on brain activity when treating addiction. It treats compulsions and aids patients in lowering their levels of tension and anxiety. After completing both treatments, the administrator allows the brain to regain normal functioning.

Seek Help Right Now

Addiction struggles can have lifelong consequences that are complex and terrible. Getting professional help is the most effective strategy for overcoming substance use disorders (SUDs). It enables people to receive specialized care, medical and psychological support, and a deeper comprehension of their addiction. Likewise, setting personal goals can be essential to this recovery process. Speak with a therapy professional to learn more about your choices.

Final Words

The molecular nuances of addiction are revealed by delving deeper into the science of how substances affect the brain. Addiction can result from a variety of environmental and behavioral variables, but it can also have physiological roots. The choice to use drugs or alcohol may be voluntary at first. Still, continued use can alter the chemistry of the brain, making it more difficult for a person with an addiction to exercise self-control and withstand strong cravings. After this happens, quitting can be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, with the right care and attention, the brain may learn to operate normally again, just as it does when using drugs or alcohol.