Addiction and the brain 
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What is addiction?

It’s also called a substance use disorder. Over 20 million people nationwide suffer from addiction. One in seven people will experience addiction at some point in their life. Scientists first began to understand addiction as a brain disorder back in the 1950s. Doctors Olds and Milner, in laboratory studies of brats, found the parts of the brain affected by addiction. But then in 1994, doctors Wolkoff and Shelbert, top neuroscientists, ran PET scans of the brain that showed the effects of substance use disorders. And like other diseases, these scans showed it affected tissue function. 

Addiction and the brain 

There are two main parts of the brain affected by drug use, the limbic system and the cortex. The limbic system, located deep within the brain, is responsible for our basic survival instincts. So when you do essential things to stay alive, like eat, drink, find shelter, build relationships, or care for your young, your brain reinforces behaviors that cause the release of dopamine from this region. That reward for surviving is also transmitted to the amygdala and hippocampus, which records a memory of that feeling. So we seek it again. This is our survival. Hard wiring addiction also affects this area up here. That’s the prefrontal cortex, which is what separates us from other animals. And this is where decision making and impulse control live. 

When drugs or alcohol are used, they activate the very same dopamine process in the survival center, and when use is repeated, that substance can hijack that part of the brain. This hijacker changes the brain and weakens the system to make it believe that the primary need for survival is the drug in hijacking the brain. It can usurp those primary motivations, food, water, shelter, relationships, and protecting our young. And the hijacker needs more and more of the substance to activate the same level of reward or feeling of pleasure, causing the brain tissue to become increasingly damaged with continued drug use. 

Addiction and the brain

So why don’t all people who use alcohol or drugs become addicted? There are factors that contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. They include individual factors like your genes, your age of exposure, and then environmental factors like drug availability. But there is good news. Addiction is preventable. Key factors that aid in preventing addiction can be categorized into two parts, risk factors and protective factors. Protective factors range from parental involvement, programs that improve self-control, limiting availability, and increasing attachment to your community. 

Another key element in preventing substance use disorders is to delay when use begins. Put simply, prevention is about delaying the onset of first use. In the adolescent brain, where brain tissue is more vulnerable, the hijacker is more prone to weaken the brain and plant itself as a disease. Those with substance use disorders commonly initiate first use much earlier, between 12 and 18 years old, which increases the likelihood of the hijacker taking hold. But if the hijacker does take hold, addiction is treatable. Advancements have been made in assessments, treatment programs, recovery supports and medications to treat addiction. Brain scans show that once in recovery, the tissue in the limbic system and cortex can get better. Be smart. Protect your brain. 

FAQs about Addiction and the Brain:

What is addiction and how does it affect the brain?

Addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is a condition where repeated drug or alcohol use hijacks the brain’s reward system, particularly affecting the limbic system and cortex. This hijacking changes the brain’s perception of survival needs, prioritizing the substance over essential needs like food, water, and relationships. Over time, continued drug use damages brain tissue and weakens the brain’s ability to control impulses and make decisions.

Why do some people become addicted while others don’t?

Several factors contribute to the development of a substance use disorder, including genetics, age of exposure to drugs, and environmental factors like drug availability. Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol becomes addicted due to variations in these factors. However, early initiation of substance use, particularly during adolescence when the brain is still developing, increases the risk of addiction.

How can addiction be prevented?

Prevention of addiction involves addressing both risk factors and protective factors. Protective factors include parental involvement, programs promoting self-control, limiting drug availability, and fostering attachment to one’s community. Delaying the onset of first substance use, especially during adolescence, is crucial in preventing addiction, as the developing brain is more vulnerable to the hijacking effects of drugs.

Is addiction treatable?

Yes, addiction is treatable. Advancements in assessments, treatment programs, recovery supports, and medications have improved outcomes for individuals struggling with addiction. Brain scans have shown that with treatment and recovery efforts, brain tissue in the limbic system and cortex can improve, indicating that recovery is possible.

How can individuals protect their brains from addiction?

Being informed about the risks of addiction and adopting preventive measures can help protect the brain from substance use disorders. This includes making informed decisions about substance use, delaying the onset of first use, seeking support from family and community, and engaging in activities that promote healthy coping mechanisms and self-control. Taking proactive steps to protect the brain can reduce the likelihood of addiction and promote overall well-being.

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