biology of addiction

Why Do Some People Become Addicted to Drugs? | The Biology of Addiction

by Pat Fontana

What happens in your brain when you start taking drugs? Why do some people become addicted to drugs? Addiction can change many aspects of your life, including your mental and physical health. To better understand how and why you need to seek treatment for your drug use, it will help to understand the biology of addiction. You can overcome addiction and move forward in your life toward a successful recovery.

Chronic Brain Disorder

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use even though it causes harmful consequences. Addiction involves functional changes to your brain circuits that are involved in reward, stress, and self-control.

As most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit,” they cause euphoria as well as flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. A properly functioning reward system can motivate you to repeat behaviors you need to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. Surges of dopamine in the reward circuit cause the reinforcement of pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors like taking drugs, which can lead you to repeat the behavior again and again.

Continued Use and Tolerance

As you continue to use drugs, your brain adapts by reducing the ability of cells in your reward circuit to respond. This reduces the high that you feel compared to the high you felt when you started taking the drug—an effect known as tolerance. You will probably then take more of the drug to try to achieve the same high. These brain adaptations often lead to you becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things you once enjoyed, like food, sex, or social activities.

Factors in Addiction

Addiction does tend to run in families, as certain types of genes have been linked to different forms of addiction. That does not mean, however, that every member of a family with those genes is prone to addiction. Scientists estimate that genes, including the effects environmental factors have on a person’s gene expression, called epigenetics, account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s risk of addiction.

In addition to genes, factors that can affect your risk of addiction can include your stage of physical and emotional development and even your gender or ethnicity. Also, teens and people with mental disorders are at greater risk of drug use and addiction than others.

The Biology of Addiction

When you first start using drugs, your initial decision is probably a voluntary one. Although you may first take drugs because of peer pressure, in an attempt to self-medicate after a traumatic experience, or because of an early exposure to drugs, your body experiences biological changes that contribute to your addiction. Notably, your ability to exert self-control can become seriously impaired and that can lead to addictive behaviors.

Brain imaging studies have shown that physical changes occur in the areas of your brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Dr. George Koob, the director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says, “A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth. The brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.”

The NIH explains that a healthy brain rewards healthy behaviors, such as exercising and eating well. It does so by switching on circuits that make you feel wonderful, motivating you to repeat those behaviors. However, as you become addicted to a substance, that normal hardwiring of helpful brain processes can begin to work against you. Drugs or alcohol can hijack the pleasure and reward circuits in your brain and hook you into wanting more and more.

Addiction can also send your emotional danger-sensing circuits into overdrive, making you feel anxious and stressed when you’re not using the drugs or alcohol. At this stage, you may use drugs or alcohol to keep from feeling bad rather than for their pleasurable effects. Repeated use of drugs can then damage the essential decision-making center at the front of your brain, which is the very region that should help you recognize the harms of using addictive substances.

You Can Get Help at South Miami Recovery

When you have become addicted to drugs, you need help to get started on your recovery. At South Miami Recovery, we offer you personal and affordable treatment structured to address all facets of your recovery from drug addiction, including spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional healing. We offer HIPAA-compliant telehealth services during COVID-19 so you can get the treatment you need now. To learn more and to sign up for telehealth substance abuse services, contact us today. Call South Miami Recovery at 305.661.0055.