When scientists first started to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, people addicted to drugs or alcohol were viewed as being morally flawed and lacking in willpower. These beliefs informed society’s views of drug abuse. For decades, substance abuse was considered a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punishment rather than prevention and treatment. Thanks to modern scientific research, however, we now know that addiction is a disease. Scientists have been able to identify many of the biological factors in addiction and are looking for ways to address them.
First, it’s necessary to understand a little about how the brain works. Neurons, or nerve cells in the brain, pass messages back and forth between the brain and other systems in the body, effectively coordinating everything we do. Chemicals in drugs affect the brain by disrupting the communication system and the brain’s ability to send, receive, and process information. Because incorrect messages are being sent, the body is unable to react normally. Imagine cars on a highway. Most drivers are attempting to travel in the correct direction, but a handful of people are speeding on the wrong side of the road, causing the others to divert from their path.
Most drugs with the potential for abuse directly or indirectly target the brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter found in regions of the brain that regulate emotion, motivation, and pleasure. At normal levels, this system rewards our natural behaviors, allowing us to take pleasure from things like food or sex. Drugs overstimulate the system, which produces euphoric effects. This encourages the behavior of a drug user by showing them how pleasurable it can be and making them want to repeat it. Unfortunately, when someone abuses drugs long enough dopamine’s impact on the reward system becomes so low that the person can lose the ability to feel pleasure from anything but drug use. Cocaine and meth, in particular, flood the brain with dopamine, leading to confusion, depression, problems with memory and learning, and poor emotional control.
Eventually, a substance abuser will become depressed and unable to find any joy in life. They try taking drugs in larger doses and more frequently, chasing that euphoric feeling until they have built up a tolerance to the drug.
Long-term drug abuse can also impact other areas of the brain, such as those responsible for memory and learning. Adolescent use of marijuana can result in a loss of IQ points, which can never be recovered even if the user abstains for the rest of his or her life. As a person ages, normal problems with things like memory and coordination can be sped up and worsened by drug use. Opioids can disrupt the production of norepinephrine, a chemical that plays a role in a person’s mood and concentration. Low levels of norepinephrine can cause depression and ADHD.
If you or a loved one need help to quit drugs or alcohol, call Asana Recovery at (949) 438-4504 to learn about our medical detox and residential and outpatient therapy programs.