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Addiction and the Brain

Addictive substances physically change the brain over time. When an addiction develops, changes in the brain cause users to prioritize drug use over all else.

Addictive Substances and Changes in the Brain

Addiction and the brainOnce someone develops an addiction, his or her brain is essentially rewired to use drugs despite the consequences.

While physical symptoms of an addiction will go away, situations or emotions related to past substance abuse can trigger cravings years down the road.

This doesn’t mean recovery isn’t possible. But people in recovery must realize treatment is an ongoing process. Addiction treatment is developing every day and has rapidly improved over the years. If you or someone you care about is struggling to overcome an addiction, get help now.

How Addictions Develop

The human brain is a complex organ controlling every voluntary and involuntary action we make. The brain controls basic motor skills, heart and breathing rates, emotions, behavior and decision-making.

There is a part of the brain responsible for addiction. The name for this part of the brain is the limbic system. This system, also known as the “brain reward system,” is responsible for producing feelings of pleasure.

When a person takes an addictive substance, the limbic system releases chemicals that make the user feel good. This encourages habitual substance abuse.

The overwhelming, involuntary need to use a substance — regardless of the harm it may cause — is due to actual changes that have occurred in the brain reward system. Feeding the addiction becomes priority number one.

Activating the Brain Reward System

The abuse of addictive substances activates of the brain reward system. Frequently activating this system with drugs can lead to addiction.

The brain reward system is naturally activated when we take part in actions that are good for us. It is part of our natural ability to adapt and survive. Whenever something activates this system, the brain assumes something necessary to survival is happening. The brain then rewards that behavior by creating feelings of pleasure.

Drinking water when we are thirsty, for example, activates the reward system, so we repeat this behavior. Addictive substances hijack this system, causing feelings of pleasure for actions that are actually harmful. Unfortunately, addictive substances have a far stronger effect on the brain reward system.

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The Biochemistry of Addiction

Dopamine plays an important role in the reward system. Dopamine is a natural chemical in the brain that sends signals to the limbic system. When introduced into the limbic system, drugs either mimic dopamine or cause an overproduction of it in the brain.

The reason normal actions that activate the brain reward system (food, drinking, sex, music, etc.) don’t reprogram the brain for addiction is because they produce normal levels of dopamine.

Addictive substances can release up to 10 times more dopamine than natural reward behaviors.

Substance use floods neuroreceptors with dopamine. This causes the “high” associated with using drugs. After continued drug abuse, the human brain is unable to naturally produce normal levels of dopamine. In essence, drugs take the reward system hostage.

The result is craving the drugs that will restore dopamine levels to normal. A person in this scenario is no longer capable of feeling good without the drug.

Neurofeedback in Addiction

One addiction treatment method gaining traction is neurofeedback. It is also called Electroencephalogram (EEG) Biofeedback. Neurofeedback is a brain training process that helps the brain learn to function better. During this process, the administrator of the therapy monitors brain activity by applying sensors to the scalp. The administrator then rewards the brain for changing its own activity to better, healthier patterns.

Neurofeedback helps target the underlying issues that may be triggering addiction, such as:







By helping the brain relearn how to live without drugs, neurofeedback has proven to be a successful addiction treatment for many people. Several treatment centers offer neurofeedback as part of a comprehensive recovery plan. Call us now to get in touch with a treatment center that can help you.

Sources & Author Last Edited: January 21, 2016

  1. American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Ruiz, P., & Strain, E. (2011) Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, Fifth Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2007). Science of Addiction. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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