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Discover the Amazing Link Between Addiction and the Brain

No one sets out to develop an addiction, and yet addiction is everywhere—in fact, almost one in ten Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Knowing how to treat addiction is important, but knowing what causes addiction, and what makes you more vulnerable to developing it, is equally important. Many people accidentally stumble into addiction. They may start drinking or using drugs casually with friends, but find themselves unable to stop the way their friends can. This is partly biological, due to genes that can increase a person’s risk of addiction. Studies of twins adopted into different homes have demonstrated that between 40% and 60% of addiction is likely hereditary. But the environment, behavior, and other factors also play a role—which is good news, because if you can recognize that you are susceptible to addiction, then you can take steps to avoid it.

What is the connection between addiction and the brain?

Science now understands that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of destructive consequences. Numerous studies on what part of the brain causes addiction have proven that while the choice to drink or take drugs for the first time is usually voluntary, addictive substances immediately start to make changes in the brain that severely impair your ability to control your actions. Brain imaging studies show that drugs lead to physical changes in the areas of the brain responsible for decision making, judgment, memory, learning, and behavior control—changes that help explain the destructive behavior of people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Addictive substances flood the brain with up to ten times the natural levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which usually functions to reinforce survival behaviors like eating or reproducing. Both instantly and over time, this abnormally high rush of dopamine teaches the brain to view drug or alcohol use as a desirable behavior. Your brain immediately learns that the substance creates intense pleasure so that you feel desire the next time you are around it. Then, if you follow through on that desire and continue to use, your brain starts to view this abnormally high level of dopamine as normal, creating a need that can only be met by addictive substances.

Meanwhile, the brain adapts by producing less dopamine, shutting down dopamine receptors, and making neurons less sensitive to dopamine, so that the effects of the neurotransmitter are lessened. This makes your base level of satisfaction much lower than before, and the high produced by the addictive substance less intense, which in turn motivates you to increase the amount of the substance you consume. It also means that your brain never reaches a level of satisfaction where it can determine that you’ve had enough of a substance and should stop. Addictive substances achieve these effects by “hijacking” the brain’s communication system.

Many drugs strongly resemble natural neurotransmitters and can fool the brain into releasing feel-good chemicals and activating the neurons that produce thought and give our body its marching orders. Consequently, the brain’s communication channels become overwhelmed by an intense flood of dopamine that drowns out any natural signals.

Our brains are designed to urge us to repeat behaviors that are rewarded by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is not only associated with pleasure, but with motivation, learning, and memory as well. Usually, dopamine is released in response to healthy activities, like eating, exercising, or experiencing an emotional connection with another person, thereby teaching us that these are important actions that should be repeated. Unfortunately, drugs can almost instantly release two to ten times more dopamine than any of these activities, creating a rush of pleasure that can last much longer than the pleasure produced by natural rewards. Drug use is instantly recognized as an important behavior by the brain, and this knowledge is stored to be used as motivation to repeat the behavior in the future. In this way, your brain is literally trained to compulsively seek out and use drugs.

As your brain adapts to drug use, the drug’s euphoric effects are lessened, and your base level of dopamine is greatly reduced. Not only do you need to take more of the drug to experience the same high, your ability to experience pleasure from anything else is severely impaired, causing a persistent state of low energy and mood known as dysthymia. Soon drug use is no longer about getting high, but about feeling normal and avoiding withdrawal symptoms that will occur when the brain doesn’t get the chemical it has adapted to.

The relationship between addiction and the brain is complicated and intense. Once someone is addicted to drugs, multiple biological factors keep pushing them to use, even in the face of terrible consequences. Taking this information into account, the value of also knowing your personal risk of addiction becomes even more clear. Understanding your degree of risk could save your life, letting you know while your friends can experiment with drugs and still achieve the happy, healthy futures they want for themselves, you may not be able to do the same.

Can you predict addiction before it happens?

addiction and the brain

People with mental health disorders are more prone to addiction.

Scientists across the country are studying the relationship between addiction and the brain to try and determine if it would be possible to create tests that assess a person’s risk of addiction early so that everyone will be able to make more informed choices when it comes to drug and alcohol use.

Most studies of teenage drug use measure factors relating to current use, providing statistics like nearly 6% of 12th graders use marijuana daily, nearly 17% have engaged in binge drinking in the past two weeks, and approximately 5% of 12th graders have abused prescription drugs like Adderall, tranquilizers, or opioids in the past year. This knowledge can be valuable because it shows us the degree to which drug use is impacting young people, but it doesn’t give us any insight into the reasons why these teens are using.

Newer research is attempting to change this by conducting studies that are much wider in scope, and which begin studying children long before they start using drugs. The ABCD (Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development) Study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland intends to track 10,000 nine and ten year olds over the course of a decade to examine their brain development as they transition from childhood into adolescence and young adulthood. Twenty-one sites across the United States will collect extensive cognitive, psychological, physical, and environmental data on these children, along with biological specimens such as DNA, and MRI scans that record their brains’ structure and activity. Other such studies are going on all over the world, but the ABCD study is the largest and the most comprehensive.

The study hopes to use all the information gathered to determine a standard pattern of brain development and to answer the many nature or nurture questions about the brain and addiction that science has yet to answer. For example, individuals who smoked marijuana heavily starting in adolescence show lower than normal functioning in brain regions related to learning and long-term memory formation as adults. What isn’t known is whether the marijuana use caused these changes, or if these individuals’ brains were already different, and this difference somehow led to heavy marijuana use. This kind of knowledge will help scientists identify markers of risk that will allow for early diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of mental illness, substance abuse and more.

Imagine the lives that could be saved if you could be screened for addiction risk the same way that women can be tested for the gene that increases the risk of breast cancer.

Do biological or environmental factors play a larger role in addiction?

Addiction is never the result of one single thing but is rather a complicated disease affected by a range of social, behavioral, environmental, and biological risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely it will be that choosing to take drugs or drink will lead you to become addicted.

Biology plays a role in addiction through the genes you are born with. Other biological conditions, such as gender and the presence of mental disorders, also impact addiction risk. Environmental factors can include socioeconomic status, quality of life, and the influence of family and friends. Children with neglectful parents, or who are abused, or who live in homes where drug use is prevalent, are at a much greater risk of addiction. Other factors, such as a person’s individual choices, can have an impact, especially when it comes to a person’s age when they first start using. Numerous studies have shown that the earlier an individual begins using drugs, the more likely they will develop a serious addiction. This is because the adolescent brain is not fully developed, especially in the executive functioning areas that control judgment, decision making, and self-control.

However, exposure to addictive substances is always going to be the most important factor in addiction. Even if addiction runs in your family, and you have a mental disorder that makes you more likely to self-medicate, and you have a history of abuse, you cannot become addicted to drugs or alcohol unless you choose to use or drink. This choice becomes more complicated when it comes to prescription drugs. People with chronic pain are more likely to develop addictions if they take opioids because long-term exposure to addictive drugs like Percocet or Vicodin can easily lead to dependence and addiction. Anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Valium and sleep aids like Seconal and Luminal are also highly addictive. There is no guarantee that use of these prescription drugs will lead to addiction, but the more risk factors you have, and the longer you take the drug, the more likely addiction becomes.

Awareness is key to prevention. If more people understand how easily drug use can lead to addiction, then more people will choose to avoid taking drugs. Educating young people on drug use is especially important since they are more vulnerable to addiction. It is important to be aware of the risk factors you cannot change—such as your age, or a family history of alcoholism—and to adjust your life to avoid any risk factors that you are able to change. Like other chronic diseases, addiction is preventable. Your genes might make you predisposed to developing diabetes, for example, but if you eat well, exercise, and generally lead a healthy lifestyle, you can greatly reduce your risk.

Seven Steps You Can Take to Limit Your Chances of Addiction or Relapse

1. Be open to health care providers

If you are aware that you have a high risk of addiction, make sure to tell your doctor or anyone who prescribes you medications. That way they can choose the most effective treatment with the least addictive properties.

2. Ensure a healthy sleep cycle

Sleep deprivation impacts every area of health, both mental and physical while making you more vulnerable to addiction. Practice good sleep hygiene (limit caffeine to early in the day, avoid screen time before bed, etc.) to make sure you get the rest you need.

3. Reduce stress

Avoid what stress you can, and find better ways of handling the stress you can’t avoid. Exercise, creative expression, visiting with friends, and time outdoors are all excellent outlets for relieving anxiety and tension.

4. Treat any mental health issues you may have

Many people develop addictions as a way of self-medicating undiagnosed or untreated mental health disorders.

Call now to find a detox program that will address your addiction and mental health disorder.

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5. Don’t isolate yourself

Humans are pack animals; too much time spent alone can feed into mental health issues, relapse, and addiction.

6. Be a good communicator

Be open and honest about your struggles and build a strong support network. Life is hard; sooner or later, everyone needs someone to lean on.

7. Get professional help

If you recognize that you have an addiction, seek professional treatment as soon as possible.

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