Addiction: A Brain Disorder

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Addiction is a highly stigmatized disorder. Unfortunately, much of this stigma has developed from inaccurate beliefs and misinformation. For example, addiction is not a result of moral weakness or a lack of willpower. Rather, addiction is more appropriately and accurately defined as a brain disorder. This is because the effects of chronic alcohol and drug use cause lasting impairments in brain structure and associated functioning.

It is essential to address and understand addiction as a brain disease. Doing so can allow individuals to reduce feelings of shame and guilt over their past substance abuse. Additionally, it can help loved ones of individuals with addiction to express greater empathy and support for their loved one as they pursue recovery.

The Lasting Impact of Substance Use on the Brain

Alcohol and drug use can produce varying effects on the brain. However, most substances are known to interfere with brain circuits involved with reward, control, and stress. For example, even moderate alcohol use can have lasting changes in the brain.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains how this happens. Drugs and alcohol interfere with normal communication between neurons and neurotransmitters (neural messengers) in the brain. Some drugs do this by amplifying neurotransmitter messages, causing overactivity of brain systems and circuits. Other drugs may interrupt normal communication by mimicking natural neurotransmitter messages, causing dysfunction between circuits.

For example, marijuana influences the latter. Marijuana can activate neurons as its chemical structure mimics other natural neurotransmitters. When marijuana attempts to activate neurons, however, it causes abnormal messages to be sent throughout the network. Amphetamines, on the other hand, lead to an overproduction of neurotransmitters throughout brain networks. This, in turn, increases activity throughout the central nervous system.

The subjective effects of drugs on the brain may differ. However, nearly all types of drugs disrupt important brain areas involved with regulating motivation, emotions, stress, and impulsivity. Although these effects are directly experienced under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, many of them can be long-lasting.

Why Is Addiction a Brain Disorder?

NIDA defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” Further, it considers addiction as a brain disorder due to the functional changes it has on brain circuits.

Additionally, NIDA is not the only organization that classifies addiction as a brain disease. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also highlights how the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction. This definition says that addiction is “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.”

Both of these definitions highlight addiction as a brain disorder. They explain that this is due to the lasting effects of substance abuse on brain circuits. While minor cognitive impairments may be experienced from mild and moderate drug use, substance abuse will eventually wreak havoc on an individual's sense of control.

Isn't Repeated Substance Use Voluntary?

Once addiction develops, an individual may no longer be consciously choosing to engage in repeated drug use. Rather, as a result of dysfunction caused by substance abuse, their brain will encourage them to engage in substance use. The brain and body may seek repeated substance use in an attempt to feel adequate or normal.

Ceasing substance use without professional support or guidance can be extremely dangerous. It can also significantly increase an individual's risk of relapse. Participation in a supervised detox and treatment program is often required to help individuals establish and maintain lasting recovery from addiction.

Addiction Is Treatable

Understanding addiction as a brain disorder has important implications. One fortunate implication is that, as a brain disorder, addiction is treatable.

NIDA explains that this is due to the brain's neuroplasticity. This means that the brain is malleable. This allows it to continually adapt when faced with new environments or experiences.

Treating a Brain Disorder

Ceasing substance abuse is only one part of effective recovery from addiction. To reverse the brain changes caused by substance abuse, an individual must maintain long-term sobriety. Many people are unable to do so until they participate in an effective addiction treatment program.

The therapies, modalities, and other interventions used in treatment programs will help individuals better understand the dysfunctions that lie between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It will also offer professional and peer support. These are often necessary for staying motivated throughout long-term recovery.

One publication by NIDA, written by Dr. Nora Volkow, explains, “[V]iewing [addiction] as a treatable medical problem from which people can and do recover is crucial for enabling a public-health–focused response that ensures access to effective treatments and lessens the stigma surrounding a condition that afflicts nearly 10 percent of Americans at some point in their lives.”

Individuals do not have to let their addictions control them. With treatment, individuals can heal their brains and bodies from the lasting effects of substance abuse.

Contrary to what many individuals believe, addiction is a brain disorder. Substance abuse causes lasting changes to brain structure and associated functioning, leading to compulsive drug-using behavior. Fortunately, addiction is treatable due to the brain's ability to adapt and respond to its environment. Professional treatment offered by Pathways Recovery Center can help reverse the brain changes caused by substance abuse and addiction. We at Pathways are dedicated to providing a compassionate and comfortable residential atmosphere for individuals seeking lasting recovery in their lives. We provide detox and residential programs as well as a number of therapeutic interventions. If you or a loved one is seeking treatment, call us today to learn more at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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