Addiction is often referred to as a chronic brain disease because it is a condition that affects the way the brain functions over time. When someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, the brain undergoes changes that can make it difficult for them to control their drug use, despite negative consequences. Specifically, repeated drug or alcohol use can affect the brain’s reward and motivation pathways, leading to a cycle of compulsive drug-seeking behavior. Here are some of the ways that addiction can change the brain:
Changes to the Reward Circuitry: The brain’s reward circuitry, which is responsible for releasing dopamine in response to pleasurable experiences, can be altered by addiction. Repeated drug or alcohol use can lead to changes in the number and sensitivity of dopamine receptors in the brain, which can cause decreased dopamine release in response to natural rewards and increased release in response to drugs or alcohol.
Changes to the Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and self-regulation, can also be affected by addiction. Chronic drug or alcohol use can cause damage to the prefrontal cortex, leading to impaired decision-making, poor impulse control, and difficulty regulating emotions.
Changes to the Hippocampus: The hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, can be affected by addiction as well. Chronic drug or alcohol use can cause changes to the hippocampus, leading to impaired memory and learning ability.
Changes to Stress and Anxiety Pathways: Addiction can also cause changes to the brain’s stress and anxiety pathways. Chronic drug or alcohol use can lead to increased anxiety and stress, which can make it more difficult to quit using drugs or alcohol.
Changes to Neural Plasticity: Addiction can also affect neural plasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences. Chronic drug or alcohol use can cause long-lasting changes to the brain’s structure and function, making it more difficult to recover from addiction.
Over time, repeated drug or alcohol use can cause changes in the way the brain’s reward circuitry functions, leading to decreased dopamine release in response to natural rewards like food or social interaction, and increased release in response to drug or alcohol use. This can lead to compulsive drug-seeking behaviors, even in the face of negative consequences like legal problems, health issues, and strained relationships.
Addiction is considered a chronic condition because it can be a lifelong struggle, with the potential for relapse even after years of sobriety. However, it is also treatable with proper care and support. Understanding addiction as a chronic brain disease can help to reduce stigma and encourage individuals to seek treatment and support for their recovery.