The Science of Addiction: Understanding the Brain’s Role in Compulsive Behaviours

The Science of Addiction-Understanding the Brain's Role in Compulsive Behaviours-1

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Addiction is an extremely subjective yet alarming concern that affects people of varying ages and gender. Be it substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder, several aspects influence people’s lives in the worst way possible.


However, the development and progression of addiction are never linear. Several triggering factors make people addicted to one or multiple toxic elements, thereby affecting their quality of life. One thing that’s fascinating about addiction is understanding the science behind its manifestation.


How does the brain influence drug and alcohol reliance? Why do people get addicted to drugs? What kind of factors make individuals rely on nicotine? These are some standalone factors that people are intrigued to know. If you are in the same boat, you have come to the right place.


This article will explore all the details about the brain’s role in addictive and compulsive behaviors in people and how it influences people’s lives.


What is Addiction?

Before we take a look at the science behind addiction, let us start with the basics. How do we define addiction? What kind of factors are at play?


Addiction is characterized by uncontrolled cravings and compulsive behavior in doing things that are toxic and harmful. Different types of addiction include drug addiction, alcohol addiction, work addiction, shopping addiction, gambling addiction, etc.


Irrespective of the type, most people fall prey to behavioral addiction when their minds are filled with negative thoughts and they are looking for some kind of respite from the situations they are experiencing. Think of it as an escape.


How does Drug Addiction Affect the Brain?

Let’s assume that one is addicted to drugs. How does it affect their brain, and are the impacts long-term or short-lived? Do they leave irreparable damage to the brain chemistry?


When we are indulging in substance abuse while developing an addiction, repeated drug use has irreparable impacts on the brain’s chemistry. Not just drugs, even alcohol addiction and nicotine addiction have a similar impact on the brain. This explains why people who try to suddenly stop their dependence on addictive items like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, etc., experience withdrawal symptoms.


The brain’s reward system is what gets influenced in people with addiction. It is a complex network comprising neurotransmitters, receptors, and neural circuits. When you are struggling with addiction, these networks are disturbed, further leading to complexities down the line.


To better explain the impacts of drugs and addiction on the brain, we have to understand the science of addiction. Drugs and alcohol tend to hijack the brain’s reward system, leading to long-term complexities. So, what happens is when you are dependent on alcohol and drugs, the consumption of it releases an excess amount of dopamine in the brain, thereby creating a surge of pleasure.


Over time, you become addicted to this rush of pleasure, which ends up exacerbating the drug use and addiction. In short, it becomes a vicious and neverending cycle.

The Science of Addiction-Understanding the Brain's Role in Compulsive Behaviours
What are the Biological Factors that Contribute to Substance Use and Addiction?

There are not only multiple biological factors that contribute to the signs of addiction. If you are trying to overcome different forms of addiction to lead a fulfilling life, it makes sense that you need to understand the factors and triggers as well.


Family history of Drug Addiction

Although not the case for all, individuals who have a family history of addiction are often considered at heightened risk of developing the health condition themselves as well. The genetic predisposition often creates a susceptibility and vulnerability to these addictive behaviors, as specified by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.


Neuroanatomy and Brain Structure in Substance Addiction

Another factor that has a direct influence on the symptoms of addiction is the brain’s anatomy and neural connections. This includes the reward circuitry, the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala. Any complications or anatomical anomalies involving these structures can lead to complexities in the brain, some of which are temporary, and some might leave permanent damage, too.


Neurotransmitter Receptors in Substance Use

Another biological factor that can lead to addiction includes issues with the neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. This includes opioid receptors and GABA receptors. People struggling with addiction can end up desensitizing these receptors, leading to further dependence on drugs and alcohol. This also explains why people tend to relapse quite often when they are availing of professional help and support services to overcome their addiction to drugs and alcohol.


Hormonal factors

Lastly, an imbalance in the hormones can also lead to the development of drug addiction and substance addiction in people. In most cases, people who are addicted tend to have high stress and elevated cortisol levels, which interact with the brain’s reward system and make an individual more vulnerable to drug misuse and addiction.


What are the Environmental Factors that Contribute to Substance Abuse and Addiction?

Besides the biological factors that are associated with addiction, it is vital to prioritize the environmental factors as well. There are not one but multiple factors that enhance the risk of addiction, altering someone’s life for the worse.

Some of them include:

  • Peer influence
  • Availability of toxic and addictive substances
  • Cultural and societal factors
  • Trauma
  • Stressful life events, etc.

The kind of environment that the person lives in massively influences one’s physical and mental health. So, if an unstable and unsettled life surrounds you, it elevates the risk factors of addiction, pushing you to opt for drugs and alcohol as an escape from the hardships in your life.


What Role Does Genetics Have on Addiction and Compulsive Behavior?

We briefly discussed genetics in people who have become addicted to drugs. But the question is, “Why does it play such a crucial role?”


Believe it or not, studies indicate that genetics increase the risk of addiction by 50%. So, if you have had family members with diagnosed or untreated addiction, there is a high chance of you battling the same battle as them. It could be worse, or you could prioritize your well-being and continue choosing healthier alternatives to avoid or overcome your risks of addiction.


When you avail addiction psychiatry or a treatment plan for overcoming addiction, there is a high chance that the doctor will discuss your family’s medical history to assess if the situation is genetic before proceeding with the treatment and tips to help you overcome the basis of addiction.


Final Words

The science behind addiction is extensive and involves a lot of individual and complex factors. The term addiction is often considered an umbrella term, meaning that there’s so much to it. Be it the aftermath of your post-traumatic stress disorder or your accidental exposure to an addictive item, addiction begins without warning and often eats away at the person’s physical and mental stability. If you want to overcome drug and alcohol use, it is time to seek treatment from reliable medical professionals.


When it comes to diagnosing addiction, it is termed a complex brain disorder. So, while the initial substance might be a choice, the condition's progression is often considered a disease.

Some people with a genetic predisposition to addiction are often more prone to developing a possible addiction without realizing the issue.

Addiction is a 100% treatable disorder, and addiction treatment usually involves therapy, counselling, medication, support groups, etc.

Contributing Editor

Troy Wakelin – Co-Founder and Contributing Editor

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