Understanding The Neurobiology of Addiction!

Understanding The Neurobiology of Addiction!

While most of us can have a healthy relationship with things, some of us cannot. How? Well, imagine there’s something that makes you feel good, like eating your favourite candy or playing your favourite game. Now if you like it so much, your brain wants more and more of it. Over time, your brain becomes so used to it that it can’t function without it. That’s essentially what addiction is—it’s when your brain gets “hooked” on something and you feel like you can’t live without it.

Addiction affects countless individuals and families, from all walks of life. From substance abuse to behavioural dependencies, addiction is a societal issue that demands attention. Our aim with this topic today is to delve into the neurobiology of addiction, uncovering how it impacts individuals and society at large. 

How Does The Brain Get Hooked?

A unique system in our brain causes us to feel extremely good when we engage in enjoyable activities like eating delicious food or playing fun games. It’s known as the reward system and functions much like the pleasure centre in your brain. This system becomes active when you perform an action that makes you feel happy and sends messages to your brain saying, “That was amazing! Do it again!”

The pathway of addiction (reward system) has existed for much longer than humans themselves and is located near ancient parts of the brain that govern various fundamental functions. Many of these operate without our conscious awareness. These functions are shared with other animals, highlighting the deep-rooted nature of the addiction pathway in our biology.

The Role Of Dopamine In It!

One important part of the reward system is a chemical called dopamine. It’s like a messenger that tells your brain when something good happens. When you do something you enjoy, your brain releases dopamine, making you feel happy and satisfied. It’s this feeling that makes you want to do it again and again. 

After dopamine is released into a tiny space called a synapse, it usually doesn’t stay there for long. The brain’s transporter quickly grabs it and takes it back into the original cell. However, addictive drugs disrupt this normal process, causing dopamine to stay in the synapse for longer. This leads to intense feelings of pleasure. 

Some drugs make the brain release more dopamine than usual, while others block the transporter from taking dopamine back up. Cocaine, for example, is so similar to dopamine that it can block the transporter. Amphetamines, on the other hand, make the transporter work in reverse, pumping extra dopamine into the synapse.

The brain carefully regulates the amount of dopamine it produces, just like a chemist measuring ingredients. Parkinson’s disease, which results in tremors and a hunched posture, can be brought on by a lack of dopamine. On the other hand, excessive dopamine may be a factor in the hallucinations and delusions experienced in schizophrenia. 

Scientists believe that the right amount of dopamine is responsible for our feelings of happiness, pleasure, and even ecstasy—not just when using drugs, but also when enjoying simple pleasures like eating ice cream, experiencing love, or receiving a compliment.

Coming Back To How It Leads To Addiction! 

Sometimes, things can go a little haywire in your brain’s reward system. Your brain can be “tricked” into believing it needs the behaviour you regularly engage in when you do something that makes you feel good, such as using drugs or engaging in addictive behaviours. This can lead to changes in your brain’s structure and how it works.

It becomes harder for your brain to feel pleasure from everyday things, and you start to rely on the addictive substance or behaviour for the same. 

The Devastating Impact Of Addiction

According to research, exposure to long-term stress and traumatic events greatly enhances one’s susceptibility to addiction. Stressful life experiences like abuse, neglect, or losing a loved one can set off a chain reaction of physiological and psychological reactions that make people more susceptible. 

Even social isolation and a lack of meaningful connections can contribute to addiction. Research suggests that individuals who feel disconnected from their communities or lack supportive relationships are at a higher risk of developing addictive behaviours. Of course, even cultures play a role. Certain cultures may have higher rates of alcohol or tobacco use due to historical, social, or economic factors. 

Research has repeatedly shown a high correlation between mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and substance use disorders. Addiction and mental health disorders often share common symptoms, making diagnosis and treatment all the more challenging. Examples of symptoms that can be present in both addiction and mental health illnesses include mood fluctuations, cognitive impairment, and social withdrawal. But integrated treatment strategies that deal with addiction and mental health disorders are yielding positive outcomes.

Let’s Look At The Power Of Change!

The term “neuroplasticity” describes the brain’s capacity for lifelong change and adaptation. This concept becomes essential to addiction rehabilitation because it offers hope for rewiring the neural pathways in the brain that have been impacted by addictive drugs or behaviours.

For instance, cognitive-behavioural treatment (CBT) assists people in recognising and changing harmful thought patterns and actions linked to addiction. Mindfulness-based practices, such as meditation and yoga, have also been found to promote neural changes and enhance self-regulation skills. These interventions harness the brain’s plasticity to support healthier patterns of thinking and behaviour.

Long-term recovery support plays a vital role in sustaining neuroplasticity and preventing relapse. Having a better understanding of neuroplasticity in addiction recovery gives one newfound confidence and power. 

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