The human brain is a three-pound mass of grey and white matter that controls all of our activity. From riding a bike and cooking a meal to drawing and solving complex mathematical equations, the brain is the center of it all. Your brain is everything you think, feel, and do. Your brain essentially is you!
When everything is functioning properly, the brain is able to process stimuli, respond, and it’s smooth sailing. However, when there are interferences in normal brain functioning, things can begin to get a bit messy. From brain injuries to mental health disorders like substance use disorders and depression, changes in the brain’s chemistry and wiring can impact how we feel, how we respond, and how we process stimuli.
HOW DOES THE BRAIN WORK?
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. With complex and intricate functioning, it is sometimes compared to a very complex computer. The brain is made up of billions of neurons that are linked together in circuits and networks. These circuits and networks act as a team together. Different circuits and networks are responsible for different functions in the body. These networks send signals back and forth to each other as well as to the spinal cord, peripheral nervous system, and other parts of the brain.
These important and complex messages are sent by way of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body. Their job is to carry, boost, and balance messages between neurons and target cells (these can be another nerve cell, muscle cell, or a gland). These neurotransmitters include epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin.
The brain sends messages when a neuron releases neurotransmitters into the synapse (or gap) between it and the next cell. These chemicals cross the gap and attach to the next neuron. Once this ‘message’ is communicated, the receiving cell changes based on the message sent. Additionally, there are transporters in the brain that recycle these neurotransmitters. Recycling neurotransmitters means bringing that chemical back to the cell that released it.
When it comes to alcohol and drug use, the neurons and how they send, receive, and process signals are interfered with to one degree or another. This affects the brain in different ways.
How Alcohol and Drugs Affect the Brain’s Functions
Drugs interfere with how the brain functions. Some drugs, like marijuana and heroin, mimic the chemical structure of neurotransmitters and activate neurons. Stimulant drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, prompt neurons to release abnormally large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as norepinephrine, and serotonin. These addictive substances can also impede the recycling of neurotransmitters in the brain. Both types of drugs can alter vital functions in the brain.
In the case of drugs such as heroin and marijuana, although this addictive substance mimics a neurotransmitter in the brain the neurons aren’t activated in the same way as with naturally occurring neurotransmitters. This leads to abnormal messages being sent through brain circuits and networks. When it comes to stimulant drugs, the large release of neurotransmitters and their subsequent lack of recycling leads to amplified or interrupted communication between neurons.
When brain functions are altered by addictive drugs, life-sustaining functions can be compromised. Additionally, these changes drive compulsive drug use and drug-seeking behaviors that are a big part of substance use disorder.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are certain areas of the brain most impacted by drug use. These are:
- Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls impulses, solves problems, helps with decision making, and allows you to think and plan. When addictive substances are used, the individual’s impulse control is severely compromised. This loss of control makes it harder for them to resist the urge to use drugs and prompts part of the compulsive drug-seeking and addictive behaviors. Many who don’t understand how the brain works and how drugs affect it think that these drug-seeking behaviors are the person being weak or not caring enough to stop. When in reality, it is often real chemical disruptions in the brain propelling these behaviors.
In addition, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to reach full maturity. This usually occurs around the age of 24. This makes adolescents, teens, and even young adults more susceptible to the adverse effects of drugs.
- Extended Amygdala
This part of the brain plays a vital role in feelings such as irritability, anxiety, and contentment. When drugs are used repeatedly, this circuit system becomes very sensitive. This manifests in the person having to use the addictive substances just to ease the discontentment and discomfort—not to get high. Many of these feelings controlled by the extended amygdala are also common feelings associated with drug withdrawal. When this area of the brain is hyper-sensitive from repeated drug use, it can amplify these uncomfortable feelings, which often lead to the risk of relapse.
- Basal Ganglia
This important area of the brain is responsible for forming habits and routines as well as playing a role in positive motivation from enjoyable activities such as socializing, sex, and eating. In tandem, these areas form the ‘reward circuit’ of the brain. Drugs overstimulate and over-activate the reward circuit, resulting in the sought-after ‘high’. But, as time goes on and drug use continues, the brain adapts to these drugs, and getting that same ‘high’ can become elusive. In fact, with repeated drug use, feelings of pleasure and happiness change this part of the brain cells so much that only using the drug can create these pleasurable feelings.
- Brain Stem
The brain stem controls critical life functions like breathing, sleeping, and heart rate. Some addictive substances, such as opioids interfere with this vital functioning. This is how overdoses occur. Often in overdoses, the breathing and heart rate are very slowed and lead to death.
Recent research has suggested that it may not be the surges of dopamine that cause the user’s high, but dopamine release has more to do with the impulse to repeat pleasurable activities to reach that state of euphoria. Normally when the brain is healthy, this helps to reinforce good activities like sleep, sex, and eating. However, when addictive substances are used to feel good, the impulse to repeat this behavior can have damaging effects. When certain places, people, or things remind them of drug use and the associated euphoria, the person may crave the drug—even if they haven’t used them in years. That’s one reason for the advice to change people, places, and things in sobriety.
Often, people wonder why drugs are more sought after than simply allowing the body’s natural reward system to function. Drugs of abuse bring on huge surges of neurotransmitters which result in higher highs than from naturally occurring neurotransmitters like dopamine. When the brain becomes accustomed to the addictive substance being there, it produces less of these chemicals naturally. And, in some cases, it reduces the number of receptors that can receive these signals.
This intricate work is why a person who is addicted to drugs feels lifeless, unmotivated, depressed, and unable to enjoy even the good things in life. This person now needs the drug—just to feel normal. When they seek the feelings of euphoria and a high, they need to take even more of the drug. Often when talking about drug addiction you will hear that the person is ‘chasing the high’. This is because when all these changes occur, getting that initial high can be ongoing and never reached. The individual is forever ‘chasing’ it.
It’s important to understand that drugs impact the brain much more than natural neurotransmitters. It has been compared in this way;
Naturally occurring neurotransmitters are like whispering in someone’s ear.
Drug-induced neurotransmitters are like yelling in a microphone.
This example clearly shows just how impactful drugs can be on the brain and its circuits.
HOW SOBRIETY AND RECOVERY CAN HEAL THE BRAIN (AND MUCH MORE)
As you can see, drug and alcohol addiction are not a person being weak-willed or acting immorally. There are actual changes in the body and brain that occur from use that make it very difficult to stop.
“A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth,” says Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.”
Getting effective treatment for an alcohol or drug addiction is the first step in helping the brain return to normal. When you stop using harmful substances, such as alcohol or drugs after a few weeks, you’ll most likely begin to feel more clear-headed and like a fog has lifted. However, with time, even more progress occurs. It’s important to note that how the brain recovers is impacted by many various factors including those related to drug use and other related to that specific individual.
The amount of damage done directly impacts how much the brain will recover. In addition, certain areas of the brain recover better than others. Here are some of the cognitive functions that commonly return after some period of sobriety:
- Fluency in speech
- Long and short-term memory
- Verbal IQ
Certain studies also show an increase in brain matter in certain key areas of the brain after abstinence from alcohol and drugs. This includes the insula and cingulate cortex, areas which are important in drug craving and decision-making. The longer someone stops using alcohol or drugs, the greater the chance for full brain recovery. However, it’s important to understand that in certain cases the brain will not make a complete recovery. As mentioned, this is dependent upon various factors. There are some in recovery who will never be themselves again, but for most, addiction treatment can help to repair damage to the brain and body.
Not only does getting sober help to heal the brain, the body, also often ravaged by years of abuse, heals as well. When you are sober—both physically and emotionally—good things begin to happen. Your body heals, your mind gets better, and you see there is a lot life has to offer you.
And while it all sounds great, it’s vital to remember that for someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs, this may seem impossible. But it’s not. Thousands of others have been in the grips of addiction and found their way out. No matter how impossible you may think it is, there are millions of people who are now sober to prove it’s possible and can happen for you too.
If you or a loved one have an alcohol use disorder or a substance use disorder problem reaching out for help is the first step. At Futures Recovery Healthcare, our compassionate, caring, and expert staff are here to help. Whether it’s your first time seeking treatment or you’ve been in rehab before, we offer recovery programs suited for a variety of individuals and situations. Learn more about these programs online or call us at 866-804-2098.
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