Neurobiology: How Addiction Works & How We Heal

What is Neurobiology?

In decades of the past, many people thought that addiction was purely a choice and that someone with enough strength of will could become sober and stay sober on their own. Those who were not able to become sober were thought to be weaker or not have enough motivation to overcome their addiction.

Today, studies show how substances affect the brain and change a person’s neurobiological processes. At the same time, however, a person use those same neurological processes to heal through addiction and form new pathways. 

How does Addiction Affect the Brain?

Addiction has a variety of impact points on the brain and its neurological processes. When substances such as alcohol, stimulants, nicotine products, sedatives, and opioids enter the brain and bloodstream, they can cause impulsive behavior and cravings for more damaging substances.

When an individual forms a substance addiction, their brain craves the reward or “high” of the substance, which comes as a result of intense stimulation in the brain’s response systems. Following this positive stimulation and continued use of the substance, they ignite a feeling of euphoria and other behavioral traits. Severe effects like brain damage and even death are often the outcomes of long-term addiction. 

An example of this type is if someone uses cocaine. The substance causes a feeling of euphoria because it is psychoactive and the area of the brain that controls both sensations of pleasure and motivation. With use of the substance, the brain releases a brief but powerful dose of dopamine, the brain chemical that gives a sense of euphoria. It is easy to become addicted to this dopamine burst and look to the substance for further stimulation.

What is the Science Behind the Brain and Addiction?

The brain is one of the most important organs in the body and regulates body temperature, emotional impulses, decisions, breathing, and movement coordination. This major organ also governs physical sensations, cravings, and habits. When influenced by powerful, but harmful, chemicals such as heroin or benzodiazepines can change how a person’s brain functions.

Two main brain functions are involved in the regulation of motivations—the executive system and the limbic system. 

  • The executive system makes plans, reasons, sets goals, and compares. When we use our executive systems, we stimulate our brain’s logical processes and run through hypothetical scenarios in order to determine what course of action will achieve our goal with maximum receipt and minimal loss. 
  • From an evolutionary perspective, the limbic system is much older than the executive system. This systems governs areas that manage systems of appetites, attachments, emotional responses, and memory banks. The limbic system helps to navigate survival situations and respond to them successfully, as well as situations that facilitate pleasure. Such responses are quicker and more automatic than those of the executive system.

One of the primary roles of the executive system is to inhibit limbic system impulses that conflict with our higher level values—e.g. our long-term goals, our relationships, and our sense of self. We override our desire to turn over and go to sleep in the morning because we give deliberate priority to being on time. We inhibit sexual impulses toward people other than our partners in order to cultivate healthy relationships. The regulatory inhibitions of the executive system help us to stabilize our lives and secure the things we want over the long-term. To achieve this stability, we often have to forgo immediate rewards.

How Can Addiction Change A Person’s Neurology? 

Substance abuse, whether alcohol or other drugs, can change the brain—this is a fact that many people are unaware of. Abuse can affect cognitive functioning, memory, as well as behavioral patterns. The decisions that someone struggling with addiction or substance abuse may include: 

  • Substance use and abuse despite negative repercussions
  • Loss of control regarding the substances
  • Impulsive cravings 
  • Negative thought patterns

The more someone engages in substance abuse, the likelihood is much higher that they will continue using it, unless they seek help to overcome it. Once the chemical substance has entered and affected the brain, the brain of the individual is impacted throughout their nervous systems and other response networks. 

What About Withdrawal and Neurology? 

Because the brain is affected by the reward or dopamine triggered by the substance, the brain itself begins to crave the substance and keeps the person in a seemingly unending cycle of highs and lows. 

Once someone suddenly ceases use of the substance, there are often severe mental, physical, and emotional consequences. Individuals may experience symptoms they cannot ignore such as intense cravings, depression, anxiety, and other physical or emotional responses. In this stage, the person may not have a severe addiction anymore but may have a tolerance for or dependence on the substance. 

How Can Neurology Bring Us to Pathways of Healing?

When someone recovering from addiction enters a treatment center, they may receive medication and be treated with innovative methods of treatment. Common treatments to stabilize and rewire the brain after addiction include:

  • Biofeedback therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy 
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy

As an example, biofeedback uses electroencephalograms (EEG), which are used to help those who have traumatic brain injuries. They can also be of help to those with obsessive compulsive disorders as well as a number of other brain conditions. Biofeedback can help lower stress and reduce involuntary impulses. Moreover, biofeedback therapy often includes guided meditation practices and muscle relaxations. 

Such therapies can improve a person’s involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle contractions. They can also provide certain types of brain training which improve the functions of the brain and help use the neurological processes of the body to help restore it to a state of health and balance. 

Such treatments can also help patients to reduce their stress and anxiety levels, and can treat compulsive behavioral patterns that come from imbalanced neurological systems. These types of treatment offer therapeutic support to the brain as the administrator of rewards and bodily programming. 

Laura Harder, LAC, M.A.

About the Author:
Laura Bailey holds a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art from Temple University in Philadelphia, and a Master of Arts in Art Therapy and Counseling from Southwestern College in Santa Fe. Laura has worked in community mental health and residential settings throughout New Mexico and Arizona since 2013. Laura has a passion for treating addiction, trauma, and co-occurring disorders.

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Lindsay Rothschild LCSW, CCTP, SAP

Lindsay Rothschild is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Substance Abuse Professional with a passion for assisting others in activating their own inner healing intelligence. She completed her Master’s Degree in Social Work at Arizona State University in 2011 and went on to study various ancient wisdom traditions for healing. Her training as a Clinical Trauma Professional and over a decade of experience working with trauma survivors has afforded her a rich understanding of the powerful impact of trauma on the mind, body and soul.

Lindsay studied holistic nutrition and trauma informed yoga at the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts. Lindsay is certified in the Trauma-Conscious Yoga Method™ and is also a registered yoga teacher. She most recently completed training in Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy (KAP). Lindsay partners with the Arizona Trauma Institute to facilitate trainings for mental health professionals and educators in the community in an effort to promote awareness around Trauma Informed Care. Lindsay is also the owner of Roots to Rise, PLLC where she provides somatic psychotherapy, EMDR therapy, supervision, trauma informed yoga, and substance abuse professional services. Lindsay describes herself as having a wild and free spirit, an open heart and a belief that all humans have the capacity for transformation and growth.

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Dr. Oppenheim was born and raised in Michigan. She completed her medical school education, general and child and adolescent psychiatry training at the University of Michigan. Go Blue! She is passionate about the mind body spiritual connection and has completed additional training in integrative psychiatry. Dr. Oppenheim believes in each individual’s ability to heal through discovering their inner healing intelligence.