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The Effects of Addiction on the Brain

Table of Contents

The key to any well-organized system is communication, and the human body is no exception. The body’s systems rely on good communication to function properly, and the brain is in charge of this process.

Addiction can cause powerful changes in brain chemistry that disrupt the communication process and alter the brain’s functioning. Before exploring the impact of addiction on the brain’s activities, it’s important to understand how this critical system normally works.

Neurons, Neurotransmitters and Receptors

Neurons, also known as nerve cells, are the key players in the brain’s communication system, with the ability to both send and receive information signals. The part of the neuron that usually receives information is called the dendrite, and the portion that sends out information is called the axon.

The information signals transmitted within the brain take the form of electrical pulses. These pulses must cross a gap from one neuron’s dendrite to the next neuron’s axon. Special chemicals called neurotransmitters are responsible for transporting the electrical signals across these gaps between neurons.

Neurotransmitters bind to a special area of the receiving neuron known as a receptor. Like a lock and key, a receptor only forwards a signal if it interacts with the correct type of neurotransmitter.

How Drugs Affect the Brain

Drugs impact the brain by affecting the way that neurons send and receive information. For example, heroin and marijuana have chemical structures that resemble natural neurotransmitters. These drugs can trick receptors into allowing them to activate a neuron.

While these substances might mimic natural brain chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in exactly the same way. This leads to abnormal messages being distributed through the brain’s communication network.

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Other substances, such as cocaine, cause neurons to flood the brain with unusually large amounts of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. This results in amplified, distorted brain messages that interfere with normal communication channels.

The Role of Addiction

A hallmark symptom of addiction is increased tolerance, where addicted individuals find themselves needing more a drug to achieve the same effects. With continued drug use, the brain adjusts to the abnormal floods of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, and it responds by producing less dopamine on its own or by limiting the number of receptors that can interact with dopamine.

The brain’s ability to process dopamine becomes compromised, which affects the ability to experience pleasure. This explains why people with an addiction need to keep taking their drug of abuse just to feel normal.

Long-term substance abuse also results in conditioning. Certain cues become associated with the drug experience and will trigger intense cravings for the drug. These cravings can persist for years after stopping drug use.

Drug use and the disease of addiction have a powerful impact on the brain’s activities. Understanding the impact of addiction on neurons and neurotransmitters helps researchers develop more effective medications and behavioral therapies.

If someone you love is struggling with addiction, treatment can help set them on the path toward long-term recovery. Contact us today. Our trained addiction counselors are ready to answer your questions and provide information about our treatment programs.

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