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How Addiction Starts: How Addiction Affects the Brain

Alcoholism and drug addiction are conditions that compel someone to continue using mind altering substances, despite negative consequences or harm to their friends, family, financial, emotional, and physical health. While the term disease gets thrown around quite often in addiction discussions, a slightly more specific term may be more correct: a brain disease. This has to do with how addiction starts and how addiction affects the brain of a recreational drug user.

When you ingest alcohol, or any drug for that matter, it affects almost every part of the brain, but it effects a few specific regions more often than not, however, we will take a closer look at what part of the brain controls addiction further on in this article. Before we touch on that, we need to look at how addiction starts, and why seemingly harmless recreational use can spiral into a full blown substance abuse problem the very first time you ingest a mind altering substance.

How Addiction Starts: Comparing Recreational Use and Addiction

When a person first tries drugs or alcohol, they are generally quenching a sort of natural curiosity. It’s normal to wonder why people take drugs, and it’s also normal to want to see the effects for oneself. The same curiosity and sense of invincibility that caused early man to forage the globe in an effort to discover all existing land, is very likely the same curiosity that makes modern teenagers want to explore the mental landscape of drug use. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can be extremely pleasant experiences, if they were not fun or exciting, we wouldn’t have the type of modern addiction crises that we struggle with today.

The issue lies in the fact that the reason drugs and alcohol are enjoyable is their chemical interaction with the human brain. Similarly to the way happy moments and good food affect humans, drugs cause the reward center of the human brain to produce chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. While these chemicals are perfectly nature in their own right, the methods we use to alter our serotonin and dopamine producers and receptors are far from natural. These kinds of repeated alterations are generally accepted as how addiction starts. This is because, like a rat trained to click a button for cheese, by using substances to over produce serotonin and dopamine we are essentially training ourselves to return to the source of joy and instant gratification. This is extremely dangerous when you consider the power of these chemicals in the human body, they can cause people to fully ignore the negative side effects of drug use, focusing only on the pleasure they can provide, leading to severe health problems and mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and more.

How Addiction Starts: What Part of the Brain Controls Addiction

When we talk about what part of the brain controls addiction, and how addiction starts, we start to steer the conversation towards the limbic system. While addiction affects multiple portions of the brain, for instance the brainstem and cerebral cortex, how addiction affects the brain mainly lies in the previously mentioned reward center of the brain. (E.g. the Limbic System)  The Limbic system links together a number of extremely important brain structures that control and regulate human’s ability to experience pleasure and happiness. Feeling happiness motivates us to continue specific behaviors that our body sees as crucial to our continued survival. Generally speaking, the Limbic system is activated by healthy, life prolonging activities, like eating, socializing, exercising etc. Unfortunately, drugs are also designed to activate this portion of the brain.

Once the body becomes trained to associate drugs as a positive behavior, it begins affecting the limbic system in strange ways. The brain may start to produce or receive chemicals like serotonin and dopamine less often, causing mood swings and depression when drugs aren’t in the user’s system. In addition, the Limbic system is also associated with schizophrenia, which can be exacerbated through drug and alcohol abuse

How Addiction Starts: A Brief Look at How Tolerances Affect How Addiction Starts

While drug and alcohol’s effect on the limbic system is largely to blame for how addiction starts, another contributing factor is the body’s natural reaction of building a tolerance. When someone first begins abusing drugs, the chemicals are almost completely new the user’s body, so the effects that the drug has on the user is generally extremely intense. After regular recreational use, the user starts to build what is referred to as a tolerance to the drug. This means that it starts to take more and more of the substance to create the same feeling that was felt the first time the drug was used. Generally speaking, this drives users to increase their doses, and the frequency of doses, leading to a much higher risk of addiction than during the initial use. This is also the reason why relapsing addicts are more prone to relapse than regular users. When someone completes a detox program, there body is cleansed of the abused drug, and their brain begins to heal at a steady pace. This means that their tolerance is brought down significantly. If someone returns to a drug after a long period of abstinence, and they attempt to use the same doses they had prior to their detox and clean period, they are increasing their risk of overdosing exponentially.

If you would like to gain a better understanding of how addiction starts, and how addiction affects the brain, we encourage you to take a look at some of the other extremely helpful information we offer. In addition, you can always call to speak with someone for more information by calling (800) 429-7690. We would be happy to help you with any questions you may have.

 

Sources:

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain