Drugs and alcohol impact the brain in a variety of ways, but one of the most significant is the way in which these substances alter levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter because it influences the brain’s pleasure centers. When the body experiences a pleasurable event, dopamine is flooded into the brain and when the event is over, dopamine levels gradually return to normal.
When drugs or alcohol are used, they produce higher levels of dopamine than the average pleasurable event. As quickly as dopamine levels spike, they also fall – to levels far below the normal range. This is why you crave a substance after you experience the “pleasurable” effects, sometimes even after the very first time you use. As you continue to use to re-achieve that “high,” tolerance and addiction set in.
In addition to dopamine, substance abuse affects the function of an area of the brain known as the amygdala. When signals are sent to the amygdala, the signals are translated and stored in that area of the brain as emotional memories. The “high” produced by drugs and alcohol is one of the emotional memories that gets stored there, leading you to connect use of the substance to those feelings of pleasure.
Emotional memories can be triggered by a wide range of factors, including people, places and feelings. That is why when you see a friend you used to use with, or walk by a bar you used to frequent, a craving could hit you hard. Your brain is remembering your emotional memory of that person or place. In some cases, the craving may come seemingly out of nowhere, but you can thank the selective emotional memory of your amygdala for that nearly irresistible desire.
Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease similar to heart disease or diabetes. None of these conditions have a “cure,” but proper treatment can ward off symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening. Like heart disease and diabetes, lack of attention or treatment for addiction can result in eventual death for the sufferer. That is why proper addiction treatment is so important to turn an addict’s life around. To learn more about options in addiction treatment, contact Treatment Now.