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The Science Behind Addiction

Understanding how drugs affect the brain and behavior can provide a fuller understanding of drug addiction and effective treatment.  The following is excerpted from a National Institute on Drug Abuse research update.

Addiction is a chronic brain disease

Drugs change the brain’s structure and function, causing changes that erode a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions.  Like other chronic diseases, addiction can be successfully managed and treatment can help overcome addiction’s disruptive impact as people regain control of their lives.

Addiction risk factors

Half of a person’s vulnerability to addiction is a combination of genetics and environmental influences.  Gender, ethnicity and mental disorders can further influence the risk of drug abuse and addiction, as can peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, and stress.  Adolescents, whose brains are still developing in the areas of self-control and judgment, are at especially high risk for addiction.  The earlier drug abuse begins, the greater chance it will develop into serious abuse.

How drugs affect the brain

Drugs disrupt the brain’s communication and information processing system.  Similarities in the chemical structure of drugs and the brain’s neurotransmitters enable drugs such as marijuana and heroin to trick the brain’s receptors and activate nerve cells to send abnormal messages.  Nearly all drugs of abuse activate the neurotransmitter dopamine, located in areas of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure.  Stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine flood the brain with dopamine and overload the brain’s reward system.

Effects of ongoing drug use

The brain adjusts to surges in dopamine by decreasing the number of dopamine receptors, reducing the reward circuit’s function.  People with a drug addiction take drugs to bring their dopamine level back to normal and require increasing amounts to achieve a dopamine high.  Ongoing drug abuse changes the neurotransmitter glutamate, which affects the reward circuit and ability to learn.  Brain imaging of drug-addicted people shows changes in brain areas critical to judgment, learning, memory and behavior control.

Successful addiction treatment

Studies show that a combination of addiction treatment medications and behavioral therapy is the most effective way to treat drug addiction.  Treatment that addresses a person’s drug abuse patterns and co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social issues can lead to sustained recovery.  WestBridge provides family-centered treatment for individuals with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders.

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