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How does addiction affect the brain?

In this article, you’ll discover the connection between addiction and the brain and where to find addiction treatment.

Understanding the Human Brain

The human brain is a complex organ that controls everything in the body, including thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, and hunger. The brain and spinal cord comprise the central nervous system (CNS). The brain sends, receives, and interprets chemical and electrical signals that are responsible for different processes throughout the body.

For example, some signals cause pain, while others cause tiredness. Some messages are kept within the brain, while others are relayed through the spine and across the body’s vast network of nerves to distant extremities. The central nervous system relies on billions of neurons (nerve cells) to send these messages.

Does the Brain Play a Role in Addiction?

Scientific research has shown a link between genetics and addiction. More recently, there's evidence from twin, rodent, and molecular genetic studies that different brain wiring, primarily caused by genetics, is implicated in drug addiction.[1] 

In other words, people can be born with specific genes that increase vulnerability in the dopamine circuit (the reward system), causing them to be more susceptible to addiction. While not everyone with genetic vulnerability will become addicted to a substance, falling into repeated drug use is far more likely.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

An addictive substance works in the brain by interfering with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics a natural neurotransmitter in the body. This allows the drugs to attach to and activate the neurons. 

Although these drugs mimic the brain’s chemicals, they don’t activate neurons the same way as natural neurotransmitters, leading to abnormal messages being sent through the network. Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters. This, too, amplifies or disrupts the regular communication between neurons.

Areas of the Brain Affected by Addiction

Addictive substances can inflict physical changes in areas of the brain necessary for life-sustaining functions and drive the compulsive behavior that marks addiction. Brain scans of those suffering from a substance use disorder show significant abnormalities from a “normal” brain scan. Some of the most affected areas are the basal ganglia, extended amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.

Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia plays a vital role in forming habits and routines and positive forms of motivation, such as the pleasurable effects of healthy activities (e.g., eating, socializing, sex). This area creates a crucial node of what is sometimes called the brain’s “reward circuit.”

Drugs over-activate the reward circuit, producing the euphoria of the drug high. But with repeated exposure, the circuit adapts to the presence of the drug, diminishing its sensitivity and making it hard to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.

Extended Amygdala

The extended amygdala elicits stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and unease. These symptoms characterize withdrawal after the effects of the substance have worn off, thus motivating the person to seek the drug again. This circuit becomes increasingly sensitive with increased drug use. Over time, a person with substance use disorder uses drugs to relieve this discomfort rather than get high temporarily.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex powers the ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions, and exert self-control over impulses. This is also the last part of the brain to mature (usually around twenty-four years old), making teens the most vulnerable. Shifting balance between the basal ganglia, extended amygdala, and prefrontal cortex cause compulsive drug-seeking behavior and a lack of impulse control.

Three Facts About Addiction and the Brain

Many people understand the effects of addiction on the brain but may struggle to understand how it increases the complexity of recovery. Here are three lesser-known facts about the impact of addiction for deeper understanding. 

Similarity Between Some Characteristics of Addiction and Other Chronic Diseases

One, there is a similarity between some characteristics of addiction and other chronic diseases. In fact, there is evidence supporting addiction as a chronic disease that requires longitudinal care. Additionally, studies prove that chronic disease management models effectively treat substance use disorder.[2]

Once addiction has occurred, it must be thought of and treated with regular care to defend against relapse.

Addictive Substances Trick the Brain’s Reward System

Two, the addictive substances trick the brain’s reward system, hijacking the natural order. The reinforcing effects of these substances depend on dopamine signaling, and chronic exposure triggers changes that can result in addiction in vulnerable individuals.

The Brain Can Recover After Addiction, but It Takes Time

Three, the brain can recover after addiction, but it takes time. Addiction is a treatable disorder, and many individuals find the help they need to become sober and resume productive lives. While there is no cure, addiction can be managed successfully.

It typically takes eight years or longer to achieve long-term remission, even with high-quality treatment and medical care. 

Treatment Options for Brain Recovery After Addiction

Brain Recovery

There are many evidence-based treatment options for brain recovery after addiction. Most patients will utilize some combination of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy.


Medication-assisted therapies can help during detox to control cravings and relieve withdrawal symptoms.

Biofeedback Therapy

Biofeedback therapy has been used since the 1980s to help break the cycle of addiction. Many early studies of biofeedback and addiction looked at and supported this therapy as a treatment for alcohol use disorder. More recent studies found that biofeedback could also treat stimulant use disorder and opioid use disorder.[3]

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular form of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that is highly effective in treating addiction. CBT helps build self-esteem, identify negative thoughts and behaviors, and teach healthy coping mechanisms.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has also shown positive results in patients with substance use disorders. DBT incorporates concepts and modalities designed to promote abstinence and reduce the length and adverse impact of relapses. 

Studies have revealed that this treatment can be helpful for patients who have other severe disorders co-occurring with SUDs or who have not responded to other evidence-based SUD therapies.[4]

Treatment for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction in California

Brain recovery after addiction takes time, but it is possible. Our addiction treatment programs at Genesis Recovery are here to help you and your family along the journey to freedom from substance addiction.

 Addiction Treatment Programs at Genesis Recovery

The alcohol and drug addiction treatment steps we provide include detoxification, faith-based treatment, and 12-Step recovery groups. Our treatment program is based on the Christian faith, and we tailor our therapies to this methodology.

The focus of our system is the belief in one higher power, especially through the 12-Step modality. Faith brings people hope and forms the basis for a healthy and happy lifestyle. Contact us at Genesis Recovery today to learn more about our programs and start your recovery journey.


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