Understanding Addiction Part 2 

 January 8, 2024

By  Heather Marrapodi

The Neuroscience behind the brain

Our brain is like the control centre of our body. It has two main parts: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. Think of the prefrontal cortex as the part that helps us make smart decisions, like doing our homework. The limbic system, on the other hand, is all about our feelings and emotions.

 When someone has an addiction, these two parts of the brain start to fight with each other. The limbic system, which loves feeling good, often wins over the prefrontal cortex, which tries to make rational decisions. This battle can make a person feel like they need certain substances, like drugs, to feel normal. This need is what we call addiction.
  • The brain consists of 2 main systems, the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. These systems work together to ensure we survive and to help us participate in daily life.
  • Addiction alters the chemistry between these 2 systems, causing a struggle between the rational part of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex, and the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system.
  • The alteration activates the pleasure centres in the brain, the “addicted brain”, resulting in the struggle to feel normal without using substances, known as dependency or addiction.
  • Recovery from addiction consists of the brain going through a process of readjustment, healing the chemical changes caused by the substance use. 

The reward system;

One of the most basic parts of the brain, evolved to reinforce essential survival behaviours like eating. Consuming food activates the reward pathways, releasing dopamine and providing a sense of satisfaction, ultimately encouraging repeated eating.

In addiction, the brain undergoes changes due to the heightened response triggered by addictive substances. Unlike a standard pleasurable dopamine surge from natural rewards, drugs like opioids, cocaine or nicotine lead to an exaggerated release of dopamine, flooding the reward pathway with a potency ten times greater than that of natural rewards.

Why do people get addicted?

You might wonder why some people get addicted and others don't. Well, it's a bit like a puzzle with many pieces:

  1. Genetics: Just like how we inherit our eye colour from our parents, we can also inherit a higher risk of addiction. But remember, there's no single "addiction gene." It's more complicated than that!
  2. Environment: Where we live and the people around us matter a lot. Things like peer pressure, family problems, or even too much stress can increase the risk of addiction.
  3. Developmental Factors: When and how someone starts using substances plays a role too. Starting at a young age can make addiction more likely【8†source】.

What we know is that our brains are not hard wired but are highly adaptable - a phenomenon referred to by researchers as neuroplasticity. Certain changes have been shown to reduce the likelihood of relapse to drug use

Recovery- Healing the Brain

The good news is, the brain is amazing at healing itself. When someone stops using the substance they're dependent on, their brain starts a process of recovery.

So, if you know someone struggling with addiction, remember, it's not just about making better choices. It's about a complex battle going on in their brain, and they need support and understanding to win this fight.

Remember, our brains are incredible, and with the right help and care, they can recover. Stay curious and kind, and always look out for each other! 🧠❤️