The Biology of Drug Addictions

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People with a drug addiction cannot control their actions – they will continue to find their substance of choice even if it is having a negative impact on their life. They will continue whether it damages friendships, hurts other people close to them, or affects their job or education. But what is it that makes people behave in this way? Why is it so hard to overcome an addiction? Many require drug rehab to help.

What is drug addiction?

Scientists have shown that addiction is a very long-lasting disease of the brain. Current treatment can help with addiction, but even for the people who quit successfully, there is always the risk of relapse.

There is a common misconception that addiction is through choice – and all they need to do is decide to quit. However, this could not be further from the real truth. The brain alters slightly when someone suffers from an addiction – and it takes a great deal of work to get this sorted. The more substances you have taken, and the longer you have been abusing drugs, the more damage there is to the brain.

The brain is almost hijacked by addiction – it destroys key elements in the brain which help us with our survival.

How does a brain with no addiction work?

A healthy brain, one that is free from addiction, will reward you when you do healthy things. This is stuff like exercising, eating, or bonding with those you love. The rewards come from the brain releasing dopamine, a feel-good chemical. This motivates you to do these healthy behaviors more often.

In contrast to this, when you’re in danger, a brain which is healthy will send signals to make you feel fear or alarm, so you will get out of the situation.

If you are presented with temptation, such as eating a dessert before your dinner is ready or buying expensive items that you cannot afford, the front cortex of your brain will help you judge whether these actions are worth the consequences.

How does a brain with an addiction work?

When you’re suffering from an addiction, the normal function of the brain will not work. The substances will hijack your brain’s reward centre, and convince you that you want more and more of it.

Addiction will also throw off your brain’s danger sensor into overdrive – it will make you feel anxious, stressed and scared when you are not taking the substance. When this happens, people take drugs just to keep them feeling ok.


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