Science has come a long way in helping us understand the inner workings of the human body and the organs it carries. Addiction has a significant impact on both the body and the mind and how each function. Updates of current research on addiction, recovery, and the brain has given us an insight into the relationship between addiction recovery and the brain.
It is important to understand that some of the characteristics of addiction are similar to other chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and cancer. Just like chronic diseases, addiction is preventable, treatable, changes biology, and if it is left untreated, it can last a lifetime. Much like cardiovascular disease damages the heart and changes the way it functions, addiction damages the brain and changes how it functions. If you were to compare a healthy brain and heart to that of a diseased brain and heart, you would find that the healthy brain and heart display greater activity than that of the diseased brain. This is because both addiction and heart disease will change the function of the brain. The frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls judgment and decision-making, in particular, displays less activity in drug addiction.
The brain in addiction will also trick its reward system. The brain can experience pleasure from all of the things we enjoy in life, such as indulging in sweets or playing with a puppy. The brain signals this pleasure via the release of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as the brain’s reward center. While this is typically a good thing, as it ensures that people will seek out the things they need for survival, brains that experience the misuse of drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and heroin, release too much dopamine.
Addictive drugs release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards release, which creates an imbalance in the pleasure center of the brain. At the beginning of addiction, drugs and alcohol will reach the reward center more quickly and reliably than natural rewards, but over time, they become less rewarding. The cravings for the addictive substance will kick in and the brain adapts to or tolerates, the effects of the drug. Due to this adaption, dopamine has less impact and the addictive drugs may no longer have the same pleasurable effect as they originally did, which results in more drug use to reach the same high.
While brain recovery research is still in the beginning stages, new research and evidence show that the brain can recover from addiction, but it takes time. When comparing a healthy brain to a brain that has been free of substance abuse for 14 months, the dopamine transporter levels in the reward center of the previously addicted brain are almost returned to normal. It has also been found that adolescents that became abstinent from alcohol use displayed a significant recovery in negative behavior and emotions. Physical activity has shown to aid in the improvement of brain health and has shown to be a promising approach to assisting the brain in recovery.
With addiction, it is still judged as a character flaw of the downtrodden. Its treatment is also deeply complex and personal. Ironically though, if society, family members, and the individuals themselves regarded addiction as another chronic disease, long-term treatments would likely have overall higher success rates.