Drugs’ Long-Term Effects on the Brain and Limbic System
Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences (NIDA).
The time-tested debate of nature versus nurture has been circulated in academic circles for centuries. The jury is out: there is no set-in-stone ratio of nature versus nurture in the formation of who you are. You are the result of your environment and your genetics, as is your addiction.
The brain is, by far, the most complex organ in the body. We would be nothing without our brains. We would lack consciousness. Our bodies would not be able to perform any single function without our brain, also known as our “control center.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse details how drugs affect our neurological systems:
“Drugs are chemicals. When someone puts these chemicals into their body, either by smoking, injecting, inhaling, or eating them, they tap into the brain’s communication system and tamper with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. Different drugs—because of their chemical structures—work differently…We know there are at least two ways drugs work in the brain: imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers” and “overstimulating the ‘reward circuit’ of the brain.”
THE DISEASE CONCEPT OF ADDICTION
When the brain is polluted, the brain’s chemistry changes. A change in chemistry over a short period of time may not create a permanent change. But, increasing the frequency at which chemical reactions are altered would proportionately increase the development of a disorder or illness.
For instance, prolonged spikes in blood sugar levels could eventually create insulin resistance. And, insulin resistance can lead to diabetes. This disease results from a permanent change in DNA. Diabetes can result in the loss of a limb.
Since the parts of the brain work together as a team, when one part is struggling, the effects are felt throughout the entire body—as seen with the diabetes example. The disease of addiction works the same way.
Addiction is considered to be a disease because drugs change the brain structure and how it works.
BREAKING IT DOWN
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) details how drug abuse affects the brain:
“When drugs enter the brain, they interfere with its normal processing and can eventually lead to changes in how well it works. Over time, drug use can lead to addiction, a devastating brain disease in which people can’t stop using drugs even when they really want to and even after it causes terrible consequences to their health and other parts of their lives.”
According to the NIDA, the three primary areas of the brain are affected by addiction are:
- the brain stem
- the limbic system
- the cerebral cortex
“The brain stem is in charge of all the functions our body needs to stay alive—breathing, moving blood, and digesting food. It also links the brain with the spinal cord, which runs down the back and moves muscles and limbs as well as lets the brain know what’s happening to the body.”
“The limbic system links together a bunch of brain structures that control our emotional responses, such as feeling pleasure when we eat chocolate. The good feelings motivate us to repeat the behavior, which is good because eating is critical to our lives.”
“The cerebral cortex is the mushroom-shaped outer part of the brain (the gray matter). In humans, it is so big that it makes up about three-fourths of the entire brain. It’s divided into four areas, called lobes, which control specific functions. Some areas process information from our senses, allowing us to see, feel, hear, and taste. The front part of the cortex, known as the frontal cortex or forebrain, is the thinking center. It powers our ability to think, plan, solve problems, and make decisions.”
DRUGS CAN DISRUPT SIGNALS BETWEEN BRAIN CELLS
Brain cells “talk” to each other by sending and receiving chemicals called neurotransmitters. This constant exchange of neurotransmitters affects every aspect of our thinking, feeling, and behavior.
Drugs of abuse interfere with this normal exchange in many ways. For example, drugs may stop the brain from making neurotransmitters. Drugs can also bind to brain cells in place of neurotransmitters.
Some drugs, including cocaine and amphetamine, cause brain cells to release abnormally large amounts of neurotransmitters. “The difference in effect… can be described as the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone” (Hazelden).
DRUGS CAN DISTORT THE LIMBIC SYSTEM
A portion of the brain called the limbic system regulates our feelings of pleasure. Signals between cells in the limbic system—sometimes called the “reward system”—reinforce us for eating, having sex, and other activities needed for human survival.
Drugs of abuse produce their effects by flooding cells in the reward system with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces pleasure. In fact, drugs can release up to 10 times the amount of dopamine produced by naturally rewarding behaviors.
The result is an increasing motivation to use drugs. For the person with this type of motivation, trying to give up cocaine or alcohol can seem as distant a goal as trying to give up food.
In order to cope with surges of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, the brain adapts by producing less dopamine and reducing the number of cells that transmit dopamine. When this happens, people need to use larger amounts of a drug to bring their dopamine levels back up to normal—and even more of the drug to get high (Hazelden).
DRUGS CAN UNDERMINE DECISION-MAKING
Images of drug addicts’ brains show changes in areas that affect judgment and behavior control. This reflects a “double-whammy” of addiction—intense cravings for drugs paired with a compromised ability to make decisions.
For the addicted person, every day is dominated by the compulsion to get drugs and use drugs—no matter what the consequences. And, deciding to change these addictive behaviors by an act of sheer willpower becomes futile.
Understanding this fact reduces the stigma associated with addiction and underlines the need for medical treatment of the disease.
A diagnosis of addiction is not a life sentence. Treatment—behavioral therapy and medications—can help people manage changes in their brain function and respond to drug cravings in new ways. Group therapy and group support can enhance motivation to remain drug-free.
Because addiction treatment aims to change deeply embedded habits, relapse can be part of the process. However, this is a well-known feature of diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and other chronic diseases with treatment plans that depend on behavior change. Just as science is unraveling the causes of addiction, it is also revealing what works in helping people return over time to drug-free lives (Hazelden).
STRUGGLING WITH ADDICTION? THE PALM BEACH INSTITUTE CAN HELP
If you or a loved one is battling the disease of addiction — you don’t have to do it alone. Contact us today at the Palm Beach Institute to get a free consultation and assessment. Our caring staff will work alongside you help you determine which treatment programs work best for your unique situation. Start on the road to addiction recovery today.