Why the Prefrontal Cortex Matters in Addiction and Recovery

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Addiction is a matter of reward. The most simple of neurobiological models for the function of addiction in the brain highlight the brain’s reward circuit as a key participant. Drugs and alcohol, in addition to other mind altering substances, stimulate the production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Neurotransmitters are small brain chemicals which act as communication devices, traveling through different areas of the brain, serving a distinct purpose. Dopamine serves the purpose of pleasure. The hyperproduction of dopamine is what causes the euphoric effect most experience from drugs, alcohol, and other substances. Pleasure is noticed by the brain because of the way dopamine interacts with the nucleus accumbens where a primary reward circuit lives. Taking the pleasure signals, the reward circuit creates an association between drugs and alcohol with pleasure, which then becomes a reward: consume drugs and alcohol, feel good, check. Other areas of the brain are meant to act as regulatory agencies to help keep the brain in a state of balance. Too much stimulated dopamine production leads to an imbalance which can cause regulatory areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex to suffer.

Much in the same way that the liver is meant to regulate toxins, but falters when there is too much alcohol to regulate, the prefrontal cortex is damaged through addiction. The prefrontal cortex keeps the reward noted by the nucleus accumbens in check by inhibiting the decision to use drugs when there are obvious negative consequences. Continual use of drugs and alcohol despite negative consequences is a definitive characteristic of addiction and a strong indication that damage to the prefrontal cortex has taken place. When the prefrontal cortex is damaged and begins to lose its functioning, it can no longer regulate the reward system. As a result, drugs take free reign over the brain, prioritizing the experience of pleasure while the ability to ‘just say no’ fades away.

Impulsivity is a form of decision-making without an actual decision making process. The frontal cortex is where the ability to think critically, make informed decisions, and take the time to plan exist. Research has found that prefrontal cortex development is halted when substances are abused in youth- a twofold problem as the developing prefrontal cortex is already prone to impulsivity.

Recovery focused on redeveloping the prefrontal cortex is essential for rebuilding critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities, and informed decision making. Overcoming the pleasure driven impulse system of addiction takes specific techniques and therapeutic methods.

Tree House Recovery, a men’s residential treatment center in Portland, focuses on brain building exercises, therapies, and lifestyle development to help men gain control of their lives. Teaching men how to be free from addiction, we’re creating change, sustainably. Call us today for more information: (503) 850-2474

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