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What Neurotransmitters (Brain Chemicals) Are Involved in Addiction?

Sep 6

The Neurobiology of Substance Use and Misuse

Substance abuse disorders are caused by changes to the brain that occur when you repeatedly drink substances such as alcohol or drugs. The most severe manifestation of addiction is linked to changes in the functioning of brain circuits involved with the pleasure system (the reward system) and learning and stress, decision-making and self-control.

Each drug has a distinct impact on the brain, however, all addictive substances like alcohol, opioids, and cocaine, trigger a pleasant rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine within a specific region of the brain referred to as the basal ganglia. neurotransmitters are substances that send signals between neurons. This region is the one that controls reward and the ability to learn from the rewards. When the use of substances increases the circuits are able to change. They reduce their sensitivity to dopamine resulting in a decrease in a substance's capacity to create euphoria as well as the "high" that results from its use. This is referred to by the term tolerance and is a reflection of how the brain stays in balance and adapts to a "new normal"--the constant presence of the drug. As a result, it is common for users to boost the quantity of substance they consume in order to achieve the levels of high they're accustomed to. The same circuits govern our ability to enjoy pleasure from everyday pleasures like sexual pleasure, food, and social interactions, and when they're disrupted through substance use then the rest of the day is less pleasurable for the person who is not taking the substance.

A substance that is used repeatedly "trains" your brain to associate the enthralling sensation with other signs within the individual's life like acquaintances they drink or do drugs with, places they go to when they are using substances, and accessories that are associated with substance use. Since these signals become more related to the substance people could find it increasingly more difficult to not think about it because so everything in the world is all a reminder of the substance.

Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction: Drugs and the Brain  | NIDA

The changes to two brain regions, the amygdala extended along with the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the reason quitting using can be difficult for those with a severe addiction disorder. The amygdala's expanded area is responsible for our responses to stress. If dopamine-releasing bursts within the reward circuitry within the basal ganglia function as a carrot, which entices the brain towards rewards and pleasure, the surges of stress neurotransmitters within the amygdala's extended region are similar to the pain of a stick, which prompts the brain away from uncomfortable situations. Together, they regulate the instinctive drives to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and force the individual to act. When it comes to substance abuse disorders however the tension between these drives fluctuates with time. In the majority of cases, individuals experience physical or emotional distress when they don't take the drug. The distress, also known as withdrawal and can be difficult to bear, prompting people to stop using at every cost. When a disorder of substance use gets more severe and intense, it is the only factor that provides relief from the negative emotions that accompany withdrawal. In the vicious cycle, relief comes with the price of a worsening disorder as well as more anxiety when you don't use it. The individual no longer consumes the drug for the purpose of "getting high" but rather to stay away from feeling depressed. Other priorities, like work or family obligations, as well as hobbies that used to bring satisfaction, are struggling to compete with this pattern.

amygdala and nucleus accumbens reaction to drug and alcohol abuse

Healthy adults are generally capable of controlling their impulses if needed due to the fact that these impulses are controlled by the decision-making and judgment circuits in the prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, these circuits also become damaged when people suffer from addiction disorders. This results in a diminished capability to control the powerful impulses to drink or drugs despite the fact that cessation is in the individual's best long-term interests.

This is the reason why substance use disorders are believed to be characterized by impaired control over oneself. It's not a total loss of autonomy; addicts remain accountable for their actions. However, they're less likely to overcome the strong urge to get relief from withdrawal that is provided by drugs or alcohol. Every time, those struggling with addictions and trying to end their addiction are being questioned. Although they may be able to resist drinking or using drugs for a time, however, eventually the constant craving that is triggered by the various triggers that they encounter can weaken their determination, leading to an increase in substance use or relapse.

Those suffering from an addiction require intensive psychological intervention to reverse the behavioral patterns that become ingrained as a result of substance abuse. A clinically guided treatment program like that offered by All In Solutions Florida can offer a chance to repair the areas of the brain most often affected by addiction. Those seeking further information about substance use disorder and treatments available are encouraged to consult the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.