Step-By-Step Brain Path to Addiction
Understanding what happens in the brain is important to learning how to prevent and treat addiction. While addiction still holds the stigma that it is fully under the control of the addict, research suggests otherwise. Most experts will agree that there are biological factors that lead to a person being more susceptible to addiction.
Addiction ‘rewires’ the brain to some extent, making treatment even more difficult. It involves biochemical changes in the brain that affect mood, thinking and the ability to control compulsion. An addict has problems with the reward pathway in their brain, making addiction very much a real illness.
Inside the BrainIn a normal, healthy brain, the reward pathway results in pleasurable feelings to naturally occurring stimuli in the environment, such as food or sex. The reward pathway is linked to many other pathways in the brain, including memory. This memory aspect is what would motivate you to do the same thing again because it results in you feeling good.
Genes and AddictionDrinking alcohol or ingesting drugs disrupts this pathway. In people who are vulnerable to addiction due to genetic factors, this disrupted pathway may then ultimately lead to addiction. The person experiences a compulsion to continue using the substance.
Your Reward PathwaysVarious biochemical signals communicate in the reward pathway, resulting in the release of chemicals such as dopamine, which leads to pleasurable feelings. Normally, this reward pathway occurs in steps where a person’s senses are engaged, causing the release of dopamine so that the person feels good. You would see this type of process if a person feels hungry. The release begins as the person anticipates food, and it goes down as they eat and fuel their hunger.
Excessive Dopamine in the BrainWith substances such as alcohol or drugs, however, you’re basically cutting past the senses to directly ignite the brain and start a quick high. As a result, dopamine release is heightened and too much of the chemical builds up on the brain. A person feels more energetic, confident and happy.
Then, the brain has to adjust itself to balance out the excessive chemicals, by reducing receptor numbers so that dopamine is at a normal level. A person experiences cravings, causing them to use the substance again, so that their reward pathway is activated. They remember the previous high, which pushes them to continue using even more.