How Addiction Affects The Brain & Dopamine

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.

Once someone is addicted, they’re not using drugs to feel good; they’re using drugs just to feel “normal”.  Behavioral changes are directly linked to the drug user’s changing brain.

That’s why even the most extreme consequences, shame, guilt, and punishment don’t stop someone who is addicted from using.

Let’s take a look at how drug use affects dopamine.  Remember, dopamine is JUST ONE OF MANY FACTORS, one hormone, that is affected in the brain when dealing with substance use. (Post about how the Prefrontal Cortex is affected by substance use)

Dopamine is the brain’s way of rewarding us or nature’s way of rewarding the brain for activities like eating and sex that are necessary to the survival of our species.  Dopamine makes us feel really good to signal that something important has happened and we need to remember it so we can do it again.

That signal also creates neural pathways to make it easier to repeat the rewarding activity over and over again without having to think about it. The external cues that are happening with the drug use, also become a part of that pathway. It’s like riding a bike.  The brain remembers all the parts of the experience and even if you don’t ride a bike for a long time, that neural pathway is still there ready to be used again. That’s why any cues tied to the experience of using their drug of choice can cause cravings.

Artificial concentrated substances like drugs and alcohol release a gush of dopamine that messes up our brains pleasure/reward system.  Our brains build up a tolerance to dopamine so we need more and more of the substance just
to feel “OK”. 

As drug/alcohol tolerance increases and they continue to be misused, the brain decreases its own dopamine production.  It also desensitizes itself by reducing the number of dopamine receptors.  The brain is trying to keep dopamine in balance. 

This is why a person who misuses drugs eventually feels flat,without motivation, lifeless, and or depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable. Everything becomes about seeking the substance that gets them feeling OK again.

You can see the vicious cycle this creates.

The dopamine system can recover once it stops being flooded because of the consumption of concentrated substances, but it takes time. 

During that time the physiological process of craving the concentrated substance that gives a dopamine hit can influence your teen/young adult child to use a substance even though they are experiencing negative consequences and have a strong desire to change. 

The next time you find yourself asking why your son or daughter is abusing substances even though they are experiencing consequences, remember that this is just one small part of many complex factors that keep them returning to the substance use.

Understanding what addiction does to my daughter’s brain makes it easier for me to have compassion for her, take her actions less personally, stop asking why, and understand why it’s so hard for her to quit. I hope it does the same for you.

Are you struggling with your teen/young adult child’s addiction?