The Science Behind Addiction: What Does the Evidence Actually Show?

There are a number of significant issues facing the healthcare system today, and one of them involves substance abuse. In the past, many people saw addiction as a choice, but science has proven that substance abuse is a disease.

Substance abuse hijacks the brain. This can impact not only the individual, but also their family members, friends, and colleagues. To adequately address this problem, it is important to take a closer look at the science of addiction and understand what happens at a neurological level.

What Causes Addiction?

Addiction is a medical, neurological disorder that leads to intense cravings that cause someone to lose control over drug use. Individuals who suffer from substance abuse continue to use that substance despite negative consequences.

When someone first becomes addicted to something, that substance targets the pleasure center of the brain, causing someone to associate pleasure with that substance, despite negative consequences. Addiction can then impact other neurological drives, including motivation and learning.

Even though recovery can be a significant challenge, working with mental health and behavioral health professionals who understand the science of addiction can help people overcome this neurological disorder and help people learn to manage their cravings. Even though the DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes multiple substance abuse and addiction disorders, research shows that many substance abuse issues target the same underlying neurological centers.

What Is the Pleasure Center?

The brain registers just about every pleasurable signal similarly. Regardless of whether the pleasure principle comes from a delicious meal, an unexpected monetary award, or even an addictive drug, all of these events target the release of a specific neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Even though dopamine is essential to life itself, it is all so inextricably tied to underline substance abuse disorders. Dopamine comes from the nucleus accumbens. This is a group of nerve cells directly beneath the cerebral cortex. When this part of the brain releases dopamine, it causes someone to feel pleasure.

Just about every abused drug leads to a powerful release and surge in dopamine levels stemming from the nucleus accumbens. The faster a specific substance releases dopamine, and the greater the level of dopamine release, the more addictive something might be.

There are multiple factors that impact how quickly a substance might release dopamine from the pleasure center of the brain. The ability of that drug to bind to receptors in the brain certainly plays a role, but the route of administration can also impact the speed and magnitude of dopamine release from the nucleus accumbens.

For example, taking a drug intravenously gets it into the system faster when compared to taking a pill that has to pass through the digestive tract. As a result, IV administration of a drug is usually more addictive than taking a pill.

The Role of Dopamine in Learning and Memory

Even though the pleasure center of the brain certainly plays a role in addiction, this serious disorder is more nuanced than the pleasure center alone. Dopamine also influences the memory and learning processes, which are key factors that move someone from simply liking something to becoming addicted.

Dopamine also interacts with glutamate to change the way the brain’s reward-related learning operates. This system is important because it is tied to events that play a role in human survival. Examples include eating and sex, which are controlled by the reward and learning system.

Unfortunately, addictive behaviors and substances also target the same dopamine-glutamate circuit, which can overload it and rewire it, leading to addiction.

The Development of Tolerance and Cravings

Gradually, the brain develops a tolerance for certain activities, which might make them less pleasurable over time. Generally, to experience a major reward, a significant amount of time and effort is required. Taking addictive substances leads to a quick shortcut, quickly flooding the brain with a variety of neurotransmitters, including dopamine.

Our neurological system does not have the tools necessary to withstand such a rapid rise. As the brain receptors become overwhelmed, our neurological systems respond by producing less dopamine while also removing dopamine receptors.

As a result, future interactions with that same addictive substance will not contribute to the same pleasurable response. Therefore, people have to take more of that addictive substance to achieve the same results, leading to tolerance and cravings. Information about where to find that addictive substance is located in the amygdala, and environmental cues can trigger cravings that encourage someone to take more of that substance, despite negative consequences.

It is these cravings that can contribute to continued use and relapse, but it is possible to overcome these cravings with the help of mental health and behavioral health professionals.

Start the Road To Recovery with MATClinics

At MATClinics, we take an evidence-based approach to targeting substance abuse and addiction, particularly those that involve opioids and alcohol. We take the time to get to know our patients personally, customizing treatment plans to meet their needs.

If you would like to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one begin the recovery process, reach out to us today.

Speak to a member of our team to schedule a New Patient visit, or just to get more information.

Thank you for your inquiry, we will reach out to you soon. If you don’t want to wait, please call or text us at 410.220.0720.
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