Addiction and Neuroplasticity

Updated: Sep 8, 2019



Addiction Starts and Ends in Your Brain’s Reward System Your brain’s reward system operates on a subconscious level and was designed to propel humans to seek out opportunities furthering the survival of the species -- primarily food and sex. In today’s world, we are overwhelmed with “opportunities” in the form of junk food, shopping, porn, alcohol, drugs, and smartphones, for example. One way to look at it is that an addiction is just your brain getting “a reward” -- often with life damaging consequences these days.

How an Addiction is Born

Addiction and craving depend on a complex interplay of brain chemicals, but the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is at the heart of it. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that carries signals in your brain and is responsible for motivation and reward-seeking behavior. Dopamine heightens the pull of a stimulus -- the urge to repeat a behavior. The first time you do something pleasurable, you get a dopamine reward after the event. On subsequent occasions, the dopamine gets released earlier and earlier until just thinking about something or seeing a trigger causes a dopamine surge. The dopamine preceding the action motivates you to perform the behavior, and an addiction is born.

Addiction Is a Neuroplastic Process

In a sense, addiction is a “learned” brain pattern because of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the scientifically-proven ability of your brain to change its physical structure and function due to life experiences and repeated behaviors, emotions, and even thoughts. Neuroplasticity is the basis for all learning and makes your brain amazingly resilient. However, this same characteristic also makes your brain very vulnerable. It’s because of neuroplasticity that addictions become ingrained in your brain. Dopamine is essential to the neuroplastic process.

Addiction is the result of a multitude of neuroplastic changes happening in the brain. According to the National Geographic article, The Addicted Brain:

Addiction causes hundreds of changes in the brain anatomy, chemistry, and cell-to-cell signaling, including in the gaps between neurons called synapses, which are the molecular machinery for learning. By taking advantage of the brain’s marvelous plasticity, addiction remodels neural circuits to assign supreme value to cocaine or heroin or gin, at the expense of other interests such as health, work, family, or life itself.”

The same neuroplasticity is also the key to recovery.

Recovery Is Also a Neuroplastic Process

What is learned can be unlearned. Fortunately for us, neuroplastic change is reversible. You can help the brain make neuroplastic changes to support new, healthier behaviors and end addiction. The article, Recovery (like Addiction) Relies on Neuroplasticity, states:

Neuroplasticity is strongly amplified when people are highly motivated. Which is why all learning requires some motivational thrust. Entrenched habits like addiction may simply grow from intense desire, breeding repetition. But can desire also cultivate recovery? Maybe desire plus neuroplasticity is all you need to recover from addiction.”

I don’t mean to make it sound easy. It’s not. But it can be done.

Recovery from an addiction requires substantial alterations in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, all of which become changes in the brain. Adopting new thought and behavioral patterns recruits different neural networks, encouraging new connections and communication pathways to be made in the brain over time. While any one particular treatment method doesn’t work for everyone, addiction treatments that harness and encourage neuroplasticity are proving successful for many.

At Start Recovery, we understand how addiction happens in your brain and how to harness

neuroplasticity in the recovery process. Start Recovery will work with you as an individual, putting together a personalised care plan to ensure that you have the best possible information, help and guidance in your recovery journey from substance abuse, alcoholism or addiction.

Thanks to Debbie Hampton from The Best Brain Possiblefor this guest blog article written specifically for Start Recovery.

About The Author

Debbie Hampton recovered from depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an inspirational and educational writer for Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen, and more. On her website, The Best Brain Possible, Debbie shares how she rebuilt her brain and life. You can learn the steps to a better you in her book, Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain or get inspiration from her memoir, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: How These Thing Almost Killed And Healed Me.


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