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Is Addiction A Brain Disease?

addiction and the brain

In the not so distant past, individuals that struggled with substance and/ or alcohol abuse were significantly stigmatized. They were often viewed as weak individuals that chose to overly indulge in drugs and/ or alcohol. Only in recent years has addiction become accurately recognized as a brain disease, and along with it the shedding of its associated stigma. Addiction is currently characterized by compulsively engaging in rewarding stimuli without regard for the consequences. It is listed as substance use disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). 

Risk Factors

The precise reason behind why an individual develops an addiction remains unknown. There are, however, several risk factors that have been reported to increase one’s propensity for developing an addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) these include environmental risk factors, genetics, drug of choice, method of use, and the age an individual started abusing drugs and/ or alcohol. Nevertheless, it is important to note that anyone can develop an addiction, regardless of social status, beliefs or background. 

Addiction and the Brain

Any person that struggles with addiction has had to make significant modifications to accommodate his or her addiction. These include not only developing behavioral accommodations, but also physical and mental adjustments as well. An individual that has engaged in prolonged substance abuse and/ or consistent substance abuse to the point of developing an addiction will have created certain patterns and habits surrounding his or her addiction. An individual’s brain must become accustomed to functioning with the presence of the foreign substance, and in its absence, an individual that struggles with addiction will have a physiological reaction. 

The brain is incredibly complex, and a continuously evolving part of one’s body. Addictive substances work by flooding the brain with certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, for example. Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter. It is the chemical that transmits information between neurons. It is naturally released in one’s brain from experiencing certain pleasurable stimuli (i.e. exercising, eating food, having sex, etc.) and further adds to the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure as an integral component of the reward system. Over time, the brain of an individual addicted to drugs and/ or alcohol responds to the presence of the substance by producing less dopamine or eliminating some of the dopamine receptors in one’s brain, making it more difficult to naturally feel pleasure. Additionally, with habitual substance abuse, the brain will create and strengthen neural pathways and synaptic connections that only can occur when the substance is present in one’s system. In turn, this can weaken synaptic connections and neural pathways that were once relied upon and utilized in the absence of the substance. The specific type of substance or substances abused will play a role on its effect on one’s brain. 

For Information and Support 

Substance abuse and addiction can be incredibly dangerous, and can result in severe short and long-term consequences. If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, please get help as soon as possible. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to leading happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. There is no reason to go through this alone, and we are here to help. Please feel free to reach out to us for further information or with any questions regarding substance abuse or addiction. We are available anytime via telephone at: 213-389-9964, or you can always email us at:

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