Is Addiction a Brain Disease
At Sprout Health California, we are dedicated to finding out why you are addicted, and picking the perfect treatment option for you.
Addiction is defined as the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing or activity. In addition, it is characterized by an overwhelming need to perform an addicting behavior or consume an addicting substance because of perceived benefits brought to the individual. It is believed that being an addict is due in part by a person’s weak personality; however, recent technological advances prove that addiction is a brain disease that occurs in some and not all people. For the first time in decades, brain imaging allows for a more realistic explanation of addiction.
One misperception of addiction is that the physiologic processes of the brain cause the addiction; however, science now proves that it is the substance itself that causes those processes. Brain imaging tests of individuals with addiction show a problem in the brain’s anatomy and physiology which has been grossly altered by substances.
Substances, such as drugs and alcohol, intrinsically change the natural biochemistry of the brain, specifically the neurotransmitters. Some substances overwhelm the brain with neurotransmitters to prevent synthesis and physiologic actions. Other substances change neurotransmitters causing receptors in the brain to be blocked. No matter what the substance or addiction is, science proves that it affects the physiologic actions of normal neurotransmitters.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse analyzed three areas of the brain that are affected by substances, such as drugs and alcohol. First, the activation of the limbic system, which is responsible for emotional responses, such as reward and pleasure, can lead to a repetition of pleasurable experience. Second, the brainstem, which is connected to the spinal cord and serves as the gateway between the brain and the body and is also responsible for autonomic processes, such as respiration, blood pressure, digestion and cardiac rhythm, is affected by substances. And lastly, the cerebral cortex, which is most important in critical thinking, problem-solving, memory, learning and other cognitive processes.
Substances affect both cognitive functioning and the reward system of the brain. Dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter, is the core of the reward and pleasure system. When an event is considered pleasurable, the brain activates its reward center; however, it is not instant. It takes time for the brain to synthesize and release dopamine. When substances are introduced to the body, the brain is tricked and short-circuits the reward center. This allows more dopamine to be released at a more rapid pace, which provides a massive influx and an intense pleasurable feeling. While this sounds appealing, the reward circuity of the brain is severely undermined and leads to the synthesis of significantly less dopamine; or worse, the complete cessation of dopamine synthesis altogether.
Aside from the effects of substances on the reward system of the brain, some substances can affect cognitive functioning as well. Studies show that three out of four chronic alcoholics have considerable deficits in their cognitive functioning. These deficits can greatly impair one’s ability to function optimally in life. In fact, one of the most common causes of dementia in adults is alcohol-related.
One of the many observations that people have about addiction is that it does not necessarily affect everyone. Some abuse substances for years and never develop an addiction, while others who may have just begun are already showing signs of tolerance and dependence. This observation led scientists to believe addiction is caused by multiple factors, including brain disease.
Addiction as a brain disease requires detoxification, cognitive and behavioral therapy and effective coping mechanisms as appropriate methods to promote healthy mental well-being. Detoxification helps rewire the brain to its normal rewards center. Cognitive and behavioral therapies help restructure and relearn healthy and adaptive behaviors. And lastly, effective coping mechanisms, which can be reinforced by replacing ineffective ones.