The Science Behind the Addicted Brain
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The Science Behind the Addicted Brain

The Science Behind the Addicted Brain

There’s an unfortunate misconception that addiction is a problem of poor self-control. Many people blame weakness or a lack of willpower when addicts are unable to stop using drugs and alcohol. This is an unfortunate viewpoint that ignores a wealth of scientific research that supports addiction as a disease of the brain.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction thusly:

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

Being an addict does not make someone weak or inferior; it simply means that they suffer from a disease that can be seriously exacerbated by their choices. A person who doesn’t suffer from addiction might be able to go out and drink on occasion without becoming addicted to alcohol.

A person who has biological and social factors that predispose them to addiction may go out drinking once and become a full-fledged alcoholic. This is a disease that doesn’t discriminate between social classes for demographics.

Under the right circumstances, addiction can impact people at all different professional, economic, and social levels. The stereotypical addict is far from the reality for many suffering from the disease.

Whether you’re seeking treatment or are simply curious, it’s important to understand the actual science behind the addicted brain. This can give real insight into one of the worst epidemics in US history.

The Development of the Disease

People who are predisposed to addiction have a very different reaction to drugs and alcohol. A person who needs to take painkillers for an extended period of time may develop a physical dependence on the drug, but they are not guaranteed to become a fully addicted.

Addiction is categorized as a psychological and physical dependence on drugs and/or alcohol. For some addicts, all it takes is using a drug one time to become infatuated with the feeling. This is why so many addicts will begin their addiction with medication that was legally prescribed to them.

One person may try painkillers and not consider the experience particularly pleasurable or memorable. An addict may remember an elevated sense of euphoria and describe the experience is one of the best thing they’ve ever felt.

The way an addicted person’s brain categorizes their memories of their interaction with drugs and alcohol can play a huge part in whether or not they develop a long-term addiction. Even if a person enjoys the feeling of painkillers, they won’t necessarily continue to crave them after the feeling has worn off.

This, again, is impacted by the chemical rewards experienced in the brain. When a person uses certain drugs, these drugs can mimic the natural chemicals in the brain. These chemicals will stimulate a release of the brain’s natural “feel good” chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.

Then, the drugs are able to fill in the receptors responsible for re-absorbing these feel-good chemicals and create a surplus of them in the brain. This is what creates that euphoric feeling we associate with drugs like heroin and other opioids.

An addicted person’s brain perceives this reaction as a reward and commits this to memory. In essence, the brain is telling us that this was a positive activity and urges us to repeat it as often as possible. After prolonged drug abuse, the brain become dependent on these additional chemicals to regulate its natural chemical balance.

When a person tries to stop using drugs or alcohol, their brain is lacking these chemicals, and starts to send out distress signals to the rest of the body. These distress signals translate into physical withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms are often so unpleasant that they motivate people to continue to use drugs and alcohol regardless of the consequences. Psychological dependence will start to occur at the same time as a person begins to rely on drugs and alcohol to regulate their emotions.

The Stages of the Disease

The stages of addiction can be broken down into three distinct parts. Each one of them feeds into the next phase, creating a vicious cycle prolonging and perpetuating the addiction.

  • Binging
  • Withdrawal
  • Preoccupation and Obsession

This stage involves actual intoxication and active drug use. At this time, the brain is experiencing the rewards associated with drug use and the person will start forming a habit.

Withdrawals act to reinforce the habitual behavior. When a person tries to stop using drugs, they experience negative physical and psychological effects. This sends a message to the brain that not having the substance leads to negative consequences, making drug use positive by comparison.

At this point, the addicted person has started to prioritize their use of drugs and alcohol over everything else. They will constantly think about using and will be continually concerned about their ability to obtain drugs. Cravings for drugs and alcohol will start to overrule the brain’s normal function and dominate the person’s behavior.

Who’s Affected?

There is no surefire way to determine who will develop an addiction. There are a number of factors that contribute to substance abuse disorder, and they aren’t always predictable. A person’s family history and personal associations can have an impact on whether or not they become an addict.

Genetics have been proven to play a role in addictive behavior. If a person’s parents or grandparents had issues with addiction, then they are more likely to suffer from the disease as well.

It’s very important to keep this in mind, and to let your family doctor know about your family’s history. This can prevent them from prescribing medications that might trigger addictive behavior. You can learn more at

The Future of Addiction

Scientists are working to come up with a better way to understand the science of the addicted brain and to identify those who are more likely to suffer from the disease in the future. This involves advanced imaging techniques, and new treatment methods for those already dealing with addiction. It’s important to understand that addiction is a disease, and that blaming the addict does nothing but impede their ability to recover.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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