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Theories of Addiction: Breaking it Down

8 minute read

We all walk around daily with thoughts, behaviors, and conditioned routines. For many of us in society, we wake up, shower, eat, go to work, relax, and sleep. Rinse, wash, and repeat. 

In this daily routine, our brains function normally, and we allow thoughts to pass and behaviors and emotions to come and go without giving many of them a second thought. What about a brain that is addicted to drugs, though? How does the brain exemplify its addiction through behaviors?

To understand these questions, we first have to gain a general knowledge of how the brain and drugs work and some important chemicals within it. Everyone wants a quick fix, but understanding the biology behind addiction allows us a greater depth of understanding of how recovery from addiction can be a lengthy process.

How Does Addiction Affect the Different Parts of the Brain?

Before we go any further, we must first look at the brain as a whole and then break it down into the parts that play an important role in executing complex tasks, sleep, memory, and emotional regulation. 

Pleasure & Reward Centers in the Brain

Most drugs affect the dopamine pathways in the brain, specifically the mesolimbic pathway. This is what is known as the pleasure and reward center of the brain. 

This pathway controls an individual’s response to awards and such things as food and sex, but it also controls the response to substances people abuse. It regulates the determination and motivation to repeat a pleasurable experience by storing in memory the steps taken to achieve it.

While this all might sound complicated, it isn’t. Think about a pleasurable behavior you engage in and begin to break it down from macro to micro. How do you know it’s coming? What steps do you take? Do you feel euphoric when getting closer to enjoying the experience? What is the response once the behavior is complete? 

The mesolimbic pathway that is working for your pleasurable experiences is the same for people who are using drugs. Where it differs for those suffering from addiction is in the behaviors leading up to and the mechanism used to get the dopamine response.

Synaptic Pruning

When we think about it from afar, the brain is simply the mechanism by which we learn. However, each of us learns differently and engages in different rewarding behaviors. This is because the brain is plastic throughout most of its lifespan. It adapts to learn and strengthens where information is more readily used and prunes information that is not. 

Synaptic pruning is what helps older people become more efficient at their jobs, helps babies navigate their sensory and motor abilities, and helps teens organize neural networks to become more processing efficient. The same process controls addiction and the course of relapse over lengthy periods of time.

Neural Networks

The brain is a complex system of many complex regions, all of which are constantly firing within neural networks. Neural networks contain the highway that connects the different parts of the brain together. They are highly social, and without interaction, the brain would cease to learn. 

Neurons and networks are strengthened by the experience of a stimulus, whether that stimulus is good or bad. Therefore, one can assume the excitation of a neuronal network isn’t always positive based on how the person is experiencing something; in this case, drugs of abuse. 

Someone who has experienced trauma or using drugs will have the same reinforcing neuronal excitation another person would have in a happy moment. These become integrated into the brain differently based on the experience and can even shape our future behaviors.

What Does Addiction Do to the Brain?

With repeated use, the brain adapts, and the neural circuitry becomes altered due to the drugs hijacking the neuron and altering the intake or reuptake of specific chemicals. This causes an abnormality of the circuity and leads to the brain now needing the substances to regulate itself because its natural state to produce certain chemicals has been overwhelmed or overridden.

The brain, for being as complex as it is, struggles to differentiate between love, food, sex, and drugs. It prunes neurons and builds stronger bonds and attachment to experiences that are rewarding. When a drug is introduced to the body, the brain says this is highly rewarding and, as a result, wants more and more of it. 

With repeated administration, drugs have affected the brain’s natural ability to produce endogenous chemicals. This is the point when addiction begins and when many people enter treatment. They recognize that either they can no longer function in specific realms of life without utilizing an external substance or the substance they are using embeds them in a life not worth living. 

These realms can be occupational, emotional, and social, all of which are intertwined. Addiction is an encompassing disease in which once the drug use is terminated, the specific reasons a person picks up a drug can then begin to be processed through psychotherapy. The brain also has to rewire itself and adapt to producing endogenous chemicals on its own again. 

Think about when you injure yourself, and the body takes a multistep process to help heal the wounds. The same can be said for drug addiction and the brain. When drug use ceases, the brain must adapt to regain its homeostasis. This can be a lengthy process and is dependent on the user’s drug of choice and length of use.

How Does Addiction Change the Chemical Makeup of the Brain?

As we talked about earlier, your brain is constantly changing and evolving with every new thing you experience. In most cases, those changes and evolutions are actually a good thing. It’s what keeps us, as humans, able to adapt to new things happening both around us and around the world. 

Humans are constantly evolving and will continue to do so. Drugs tend to affect your brain in a negative way, especially when you have grown dependent or even addicted to them. Because of this, it’s important to understand the neurological basis of addiction and drug use. Doing so can be helpful in understanding why one person may develop an addiction, and another may not.

Addiction changes the chemical and biological makeup of the brain in many different ways. After all, it’s your brain that has to decide that it likes the drug or alcohol and wants more of it. 

While there are many ways in which the brain changes during addiction, there are four that are more significant than others:

  • A change in the brain’s natural balance
  • A change in the overall brain chemistry
  • A change in the brain’s communication patterns
  • A change in the way in which a brain is structured and functions

Change in Brain Chemistry

In order for an addiction to develop, your brain first has to decide that it not only likes the substance but needs more of it to continue to function. As a result, the entire chemical makeup of the brain will change in order to tell the body that it needs more and more of the substance in question, whether that be drugs or alcohol.

Change in Communication Patterns

The brain’s amygdala is associated with memory and emotion. Certain “cues” are stored as positive or negative memories. Included in those “cues” can be someone’s prolonged use of drugs or alcohol. 

For example, if every day after work you come home and have a drink or do drugs, after a while, your brain will become so used to that happening, that it will start to just become second nature. 

If you come home one day and decide not to, your brain might reject that. It’s the reason why people say it’s so hard to stop using after they have developed an addiction. 

The drugs and alcohol are viewed as a positive experience by the brain. Conversely, the attempt to stop using and the withdrawal symptoms that come with that is viewed as a negative or unpleasant experience by the brain. 

In fact, once the brain has grown dependent on a certain substance, it will do everything in its power to get you to continue to keep using it.

Change in Structure and Function

Many people turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to relieve stress. It’s kind of ironic then that one of the effects that drugs and alcohol have on the brain is its ability to create problems with stress regulation in the brain. So, while using can relieve stress, and stopping can cause more stress, the entire cycle diminishes the brain’s ability to regulate stress levels.

Change in Natural Balance

Abusing drugs and alcohol can cause changes in your brain’s cerebral cortex. This can result in impaired decision-making, impulsivity, and compulsivity. 

Not only do these changes make it harder for you to quit using drugs and alcohol, but they can also have potentially dangerous or even deadly consequences. 

When your decision making is impaired, you are more likely to do something that you know is wrong, such as breaking the law or even doing something dangerous that could result in death.

So, Is Addiction a Biological Disease?

While the short answer to this is both yes and no, it is much more complicated than that. 

While yes, there are certain biological factors that can increase the odds of developing an addiction, there is not one single factor that has been shown to do that with complete, 100% certainty. This can make things complicated because while biology is necessary to develop a drug addiction, there isn’t something specific that scientists can pinpoint. 

As a result of this, we as a society can not solely rely on biology as the explanation or reasoning behind the development of a drug or alcohol addiction. As we have seen throughout history, while having family members who suffer from addiction might increase the chances that you will develop an addiction yourself, it does not guarantee that it will happen. 

On the opposite side of that, many people who develop a drug or alcohol addiction don’t have any known addiction issues in their family history. 

While the question of whether or not addiction is a biological disease from the standpoint of genetic traits and family history can be tricky to answer, there is no question that addiction changes not just the biological but also chemical makeup of the brain. 

Do You Suffer From Addiction?

If you or someone you know suffers from addiction, it’s important to know that you don’t have to suffer anymore. At Footprints to Recovery, we offer drug and alcohol treatment programs that help in teaching your brain that it doesn’t have to be reliant on drugs and alcohol anymore. Contact us today to learn more about our different treatment options and find out which one is best for you.


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