How Addiction Impairs the Brain’s Reward Center

One of the largest misconceptions about addiction is that it is a choice. While addiction may develop from the initial decision to use substances, it takes over vital brain regions responsible for motivating individuals to carry out specific tasks and responsibilities. Nearly all brain areas are affected by addiction, especially the brain’s reward center. The brain’s reward center is a circuit that identifies and causes feelings of pleasure when it is stimulated by something we perceive as pleasurable.

Before exposure to alcohol or other drugs, our brain’s reward center is most commonly stimulated by eating food, having sex or being in love. However, once chemical substances are added to the equation, the brain’s reward center becomes hijacked. It is important to recognize the impact of substance use and addiction and how it makes these as challenging as they are to treat.

How the brain works in addiction.

It is essential to understand that the brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Our brain regulates critical human functions, such as breathing or keeping our heart beating, enables us to interpret and respond to our surroundings and shapes our behavior. It is the center of all human activity.

The brain comprises numerous regions and interconnected circuits that all work together to carry out tasks. Different brain regions are responsible for performing specific functions. These other brain regions are filled with billions of tiny cells, called neurons, that send signals back and forth to one another, driving communication between brain regions. Neurons act as switches to control the flow of information and communication between these regions. Messages are sent when a neuron releases a neurotransmitter into the gap between the sending neuron and the receiving neuron. The neurotransmitter attaches to the receiving neuron’s receptor and causes changes in the receiving cell.

Every substance produces different effects on the brain. Some substances activate neurons and associated brain regions, while other drugs amplify or disrupt regular communication between neurons by surging neurotransmitters. In general, drugs interfere with how neurons send, receive and interpret neurotransmitter signals.

Understanding the role of dopamine in repeated substance use.

Addiction is marked by compulsive drug-seeking and drug-using behavior, despite the consequences that substance use may cause. Some people may develop an addiction to a substance after using it just one time, while for others, repeated substance use is what causes addiction. No matter the case, it is known that alcohol and other drugs can produce feelings of pleasure. Chemical substances do this by generating a surge in dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in the brain’s reward center.

When a drug is used repeatedly, dopamine surges occur. Dopamine surges by chemical substances are incomparable to the small bursts of neurotransmitters naturally produced through daily activities like eating or having social interactions. In this way, alcohol and other drugs hijack the brain’s reward center associated with identifying and motivating pleasurable behaviors. Instead of finding pleasure in natural rewards, the brain becomes wired to only find pleasure in substance-using or -seeking behaviors.

Our natural brain is wired to motivate and repeat behavior that we perceive as pleasurable. Dopamine plays an integral part in this. When the brain’s reward center is stimulated through a healthy, enjoyable experience, bursts of dopamine signal to the brain that that specific experience is worth remembering. The signal changes neuronal connectivity and communication, making it easier to repeat the pleasurable experience without conscious thought. When drugs produce large dopamine surges and associated signals, it teaches the brain to seek out substance-using behavior at the expense of any healthier activities.

The challenges with reversing reprogramming from substance use.

Alcohol and drugs create incomparable, powerful feelings of reward. Despite using the word “reward,” the aftermath of substance use is the opposite of rewarding. The effects of experiencing such a powerful reward motivate individuals to take drugs repeatedly, even if they no longer want to, or recognize the consequences that their substance use is causing.

However, after repeated substance use is normalized in a person’s life, they will no longer feel those dopamine surges. This phenomenon defines tolerance, which means a person will have to take more and more of a substance to achieve desired effects. Even then, once a person becomes addicted, they may no longer use it to feel good but instead to prevent themselves from feeling bad.

While addiction may be stereotyped as a choice, it is inevitably characterized by compromised self-control. Individuals who struggle with addiction cannot experience relief from the temptations and triggers that have developed through repeated substance use. Even if a person can stop substance use for a while, they will likely relapse without professional treatment, guidance and support, resulting in substance use disorders (SUDs) that will only worsen over time. If you or your loved one is struggling with the consequences of addiction, consider seeking treatment today to prevent symptoms from worsening.

DiscoveryMD is a treatment program that comprehensively treats both substance use disorders and mental health disorders. We recognize that substance use can wreak havoc on nearly all brain areas and functions, especially dopamine surges. We offer several different treatment programs to cater to the needs of all of our patients. If you or your loved one is struggling with the effects of addiction, contact us today.

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