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The Effects of Addiction on the Human Brain

If you or someone you know has struggled with addiction to anything — be it drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or even sugar — you know how scary addiction can be. Addiction can hijack your entire life, make you lose control of your thoughts and actions, and direct your focus and energy toward self-destructive behaviors. 


In the midst of addiction, it can seem like there’s no way out. The intensity of addiction and its aftermath — and its strong grip on the lives of people with addiction — is because of how addiction works in the brain. 


Your brain is an incredibly complex organ and, sometimes, things can go awry. Dr. Lori C. Scott of Lori Scott Family Care has seen and helped many patients who grappled with addiction, getting them back on their feet and in charge of their lives. One of the first steps is knowing exactly how addiction affects the brain. 

How does addiction affect the brain?

Addiction research is ongoing, but so far, scientists and doctors have determined that addiction primarily acts on two parts of your brain: the limbic system (which includes the basal ganglia and amygdala) and the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system

Think of your limbic system as the reward system for your brain. As the National Institutes of Health put it, “A healthy brain rewards healthy behavior.” Your brain releases a surge of feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine, to reward you for behaviors that aid in survival — like eating and having sex. You also get a dopamine surge when you exercise, bond with loved ones, and accomplish a goal or learn something new. 


The problem is that dopamine can also surge in response to harmful behaviors, such as eating unhealthy food that makes you feel good in the moment, like ice cream or fatty fried foods. This same mechanism is what motivates people to use drugs and alcohol over and over again, as addictive substances mess with the reward circuits in your limbic system, eventually hardwiring you to need alcohol or drugs to feel good. 

The prefrontal cortex

Your prefrontal cortex is known as the decision-making center of your brain. It helps you make choices and also aids in impulse control, or managing emotions and holding back from potentially harmful, spur-of-the-moment decisions.


Think of impulse control as saying “no” to dessert after dinner because you need to lose weight or manage a condition like diabetes. Sure, you want the dessert and you know it would taste good and make you feel good in the moment. But your prefrontal cortex allows you to ignore the desire for immediate gratification and stick to your long-term goals. 


When people become addicted to drugs or alcohol, the prefrontal cortex becomes damaged or miswired. This is especially true for young people who misuse substances, because the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until your late 20s, meaning that misuse of substances in early years can cause permanent changes to brain function. 


Addiction can cause symptoms of impulse control disorder by damaging the prefrontal cortex, making it more difficult for people to resist the urge to use drugs or consume alcohol.

How to get help 

If you suspect — or know — that you’re suffering from addiction, you’ve already taken the first step, which is recognizing addiction. The next step is to find someone to help you since it’s not likely that you’ll be able to quit on your own. Addiction is just that strong. 


You can see your primary care doctor and get a referral to a substance abuse specialist or find a doctor who already specializes in addiction. Dr. Scott runs a primary care clinic where she also offers addiction treatment for different substances. 

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Scott and get started with addiction treatment, call our Kinston, North Carolina, office at 252-238-7079 or book online today.

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