What Are the Effects of Addiction on the Brain?
The disease of addiction is complex and hard to overcome. More people die prematurely from drug addiction than any other cause of preventable death. Although addiction can be overcome, it is an extremely difficult process. Part of the reason for this difficulty is the actual changes in the brain that occur from prolonged addiction. So what are the effects of addiction on the brain?
Prolonged drug addiction changes the way the brain communicates messages. Through imaging scans, it has been shown that parts of the brain related to memory and other important functions were affected in the brains of addicts. To understand just how much addiction affects the brain, you must be familiar with a wide range of changes caused.
Chemical Changes in the Brain
Drugs are addictive and effective because they are chemical compounds. When drugs are smoked, injected, or swallowed, they begin interacting with the chemicals in the brain. Normally, the brain sends messages and information using nerve cells. Unfortunately, addictive drugs disrupt these messages.
One way drugs affect the brain’s messages is by imitating the naturally occurring messages of the brain. When drugs enter the brain, they trick brain receptors into sending messages via nerve cells. However, these messages become problematic and inhibit both brain and body function. Opioids are especially harmful to our brain’s sent messages.
A lot of drugs affect our brains release of dopamine. Dopamine is naturally-occurring in our brains and is used to evoke feelings of joy or pleasure. When drugs overstimulate our dopamine releases, it throws the mind out of balance. So users may initially feel a spike in joy or pleasure, but they will also feel a prolonged feeling of depression once the drug wears off. The chemical changes, imitation, and stimulation, caused by drug addiction lead to an array of negative effects.
Chemical changes in the brain cause two main negative effects—an initial euphoric or pleasurable effect and a more long-term “cyclical effect.”
The euphoric effect is a sensation that initially leads users down a path of addiction. The highness effect is directly related to the brain’s reward system. The brain is chemically structured to evoke feelings of pleasure periodically after completing or enjoying tasks. However, drug use highjacks this system.
When our brain is stimulated by drugs, it begins to release unnatural amounts of dopamine. As mentioned earlier, this leads to prolonged periods of depression. These periods of depression can often make users desire even more drug use.
Prolonged drug use means prolonged periods of unnatural dopamine release. Eventually, the brain begins to identify this unnatural release and adjust to it accordingly. When this happens to people with an addiction disorder, it begins the cyclical effect.
After continuous drug use, the brain will produce less dopamine naturally. So, even if addicts stop taking drugs, they will have less dopamine to feel rewarded. Unfortunately, addicts will likely suffer through periods of depression due to the chemical changes in the brain.
Another downfall of the cyclical effect is the need for more drugs. As stated, the brain begins producing less dopamine after continued drug use. Not only will it be harder for addicts to feel joy naturally, but it will be harder for drugs to produce the effect. This often leads to an increase in the amount of drugs taken, which leads to an increased dependence and level of addiction.
Unsurprisingly, the brain suffers long-term effects from addiction. The brain’s reward system, the limbic system, loses its ability to release feel-good chemicals. This loss causes addicts to feel an urge to use the drug much stronger than urges felt in a normal, unaffected brain. Since taking the drug is the only way to trigger the brain’s reward system, people with an addiction must take the drug to feel good.
Other long-term effects include depression, weight gain, weight loss, and memory loss. Users are depressed whenever they are not taking the drug due to chemical changes in the brain. Often, users try to trigger happiness by eating. This leads to weight gain. On the other hand, some users feel too depressed or sick to eat a steady diet. This leads to weight loss.
Unbeknownst to most, the brain’s chemical makeup is actually changed from addiction. The brain becomes overstimulated and releases dopamine on an unnatural level. Prolonged drug use causes prolonged periods of unnatural dopamine release and eventually causes the brain to stop the natural production of dopamine.
When this occurs, the brain is rewired, and addicted persons struggle to feel rewarded without drug use. As these chemical changes to the brain communicate, addiction becomes a very serious disease that is hard to overcome.