addiction and the brain

Addiction and The Brain

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Addiction affects the brain in different ways. Long term substance abuse can have a dramatic effect on the entire brain.


Reward System

Addiction in the brain starts in the reward system of the brain. The limbic system is part of the reward system in the brain which extends through multiple areas of the brain. Specifically, the reward of addictive behaviors comes from activity in the nucleus accumbens. Drugs and alcohol create a surplus in the production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain which create different messages to send to different areas. Dopamine binds to dopamine receptors throughout the brain which creates messages of pleasure. Pleasure is a reward, which is why dopamine communicates with the nucleus accumbens, where reward lives. Dopamine tells this area of the brain that drugs and alcohol feels good and the nucleus accumbens creates a signal to the memory that says, “Take note of drugs and alcohol. They feel good.”


Memory Association

Memories are built in the brain through glutamate channels which go in and out of the midbrain to create permanent associations. When dopamine comes in and out of the nucleus accumbens it also comes into the midbrain where it communicates with glutamate channels. The glutamate channels are what commits things to memory. For example, you might choose to get high when you were facing a certain stressor in your life. That association becomes a memory in the brain. “That one time I was stressed and used drugs and alcohol, I felt good instead of bad.”


Cognitive Functioning

The prefrontal cortex is where the core of our humanity exists. All the small things we think, do, and feel happens in the prefrontal cortex because that is where our cognitive functions live. Addiction affects our ability to be ourselves and act in our human nature because it impairs cognitive function.


Emotional Functioning

The amygdala and the hippocampus help us regulate our stress and our emotions. Both of these areas are compromised by addiction, which compromises our ability to connect with and regulate our emotions.



We have an HQ in our brains where our secret intelligence is keeping a watch at all times. The midbrain is where we operate from our basic survival functions like eating and sleeping. When addiction changes our memory, consumes the brain with a need for pleasure, and rewires core processes, the midbrain is affected. At first, addiction becomes on option for survival. Next, it moves through the order of operations, becoming more important than eating, then sleeping. Finally, addiction moves to the top of the list. Nothing is more chemically important to the brain than obtaining and using drugs and alcohol.


Tree House Recovery is a long term men’s addiction treatment program creating sustainable change in men’s lives by teaching them how to find freedom from addiction. For information on our programs for complete recovery in Portland, Oregon, call us today: (503) 850-2474

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