Get Behind the Neuroscience of Addiction

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According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (2019), “Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences”.

Although addiction is not an uncommon word in today’s society, our understanding of this mysterious physiological process remains at a minimum. Even after years of conducting studies and collecting research, our knowledge about the neuroscience of addiction has just barely begun to scratch the surface.

Over the last few centuries, many theories about addiction have tried to explain its existence. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, alcoholics were thought to be possessed by demons.

Because of this uneducated perception, inebriates were locked up in asylums with the mentally ill and treated inhumanely. Fast forward to 2020, and we now know the neuroscience of addiction is not the result of demonic possession, but rather a gradual process of biological changes to the human brain, in conjunction with various external influences.

Thanks to science, people who suffer from addiction can now receive the help they need through certified treatment centers and specialists. To understand more about how this scientific journey has evolved, you need to know a little more about how it began.

The Founding Father of Addiction

Alcoholism was once seen as being sinful and a matter of choice. Benjamin Rush, a physician and one of the Founding Fathers, was the first to suggest otherwise. Rush argued that malfunctions in the brain caused imbalances in the body’s physical system, which resulted in illness.

He believed that mental illness and addiction were diseases, which required medical treatment. Rush was harshly criticized for his way of thinking, but because of it, a paradigm shift occurred, and other people began to question how addiction affects the mind and body.

Why was Benjamin Rush interested in alcoholism? What would make him curious enough to ask questions about this topic? Rush’s personal interest in alcoholism stemmed from having an alcoholic father and stepfather who were abusive when under the influence.

Rush’s inquisitive thinking has led to more research and studies being conducted through the years, which have shown how addiction physically alters the human brain and its functioning. Today, addiction is regarded as a disease and the methods of treatment continue to expand and evolve. Benjamin Rush pioneered the therapeutic approach to addiction, which has helped to ensure healthy and successful recoveries for many individuals.

How Does Addiction Work?

Addiction can cause an individual to lose everything, including their own life. A substance or activity becomes the number one priority to someone suffering from addiction, so eventually jobs are lost, families are separated, and lives are destroyed.

To an addict or alcoholic, addiction can feel like being possessed, as they slowly lose control of their mind and body. It starts with an individual having constant obsessive thoughts about a substance. Next, the individual’s behavior changes. They may start stealing money from relatives or selling stolen items, just so they can buy the substance. In the worst stage of addiction, the individual’s body becomes physically dependent and will experience withdrawal symptoms during prolonged periods without the substance.

Withdrawal from certain substances such as alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines can be life-threatening, so use of these substances should never be stopped “cold turkey.” According to the New York Post (2017), “In severe cases, the person’s brain is so dependent on alcohol, removing it can trigger an extreme reaction, such as organ failure. Medical intervention is necessary because doctors can gradually administer prescription drugs that allow the body to safely taper off dependence under supervision” (“Detox Shock”, p. 035). This is one reason why so very few of those who try to quit using on their own, are actually successful at doing so.

Different substances produce different withdrawal symptoms. The duration and intensity of those symptoms can vary depending on the method in which the substance was used, the length of time the substance has been used, and the level of dependency.

Side effects of withdrawal can include depression, anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, irritability, agitation,  nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, muscle aches, back and joint pain, nightmares, tremors, cravings, seizures, irregular heart rate, high or low blood pressure, cold and clammy skin, sweating, fever, respiratory distress, mental confusion, dilated pupils, tingling in extremities, trouble concentrating, short-term memory issues, mental confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, delirium, excitability, shakiness, suicidal thoughts, muscle weakness, appetite fluctuations, disorientation, and pain sensitivity.

In order to understand how the neuroscience of addiction works, you need to know more about the different components of addiction. As previously discussed, addiction involves complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, environment, and life experiences. Let’s break these down and take a deeper look at each one, to better comprehend the neuroscience of addiction.

1. Brain Circuits

Although the human body stops growing between the ages of 18 and 21, the human brain continues to develop into the mid-20’s. The area of the brain responsible for executive functions that support things like rational thinking, impulse control, and emotion regulation, actually develops last. Oddly enough, the emotional and reward/motivation circuits are among the first to develop. Therefore, children react more emotionally than adults and are more motivated by rewards.

When an individual becomes intoxicated, the substance causes dopamine (a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure) to be released into the brain’s reward system. The brain then makes a connection in the reward circuitry between that substance and how good it feels. Over time, the substance decreases the body’s natural ability to produce dopamine, causing the individual to increase the frequency and amount of the substance being used. Since pleasure is an important survival response, the brain basically falls into survival mode and continuously seeks to find the substance that it originally made a connection with. Unfortunately, this becomes a vicious cycle for any addict or alcoholic that can ultimately lead to death.

Since the human brain develops the reward circuitry before rational thinking, it is no surprise that teens are more susceptible to addiction. First, an adolescent brain is unable to self-regulate, due to the prefrontal cortex not being fully developed. This leads to impulsivity and risky behavior. Second, an adolescent brain is more neuroplastic than an adult brain, meaning it can reorganize itself through making new neural connections. Because of this, an adult is less likely to develop an addiction because their brain is already organized with all of its neural connections in place. To put it in simpler terms, an adult brain is more like the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

2. Genetics

There is no hereditary gene that determines whether a child will be an addict or alcoholic. Just because a child’s parent suffers from addiction, does not necessarily mean that the child will have the same problems. As Jaffe (2012) states, “Current addiction research shows that roughly 50% of addiction tendencies are attributable to genes” (para. 8). Scientists have been steadily trying to narrow this research down to help solve the problem of addiction, but there are many other factors that play a key role in this issue. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (2016) claims, “Most diseases, including addiction, are complex, and variations in many different genes contribute to a person’s overall level of risk or protection” (para. 3).

3. Environment

Many environmental factors can play a role in the neuroscience of addiction, and they can be separated into 4 categories: family, peers, school/work, and community. Since home is where people spend the most time, an individual’s family often has a heavy influence on whether or not they become an addict or alcoholic. If the parents abuse drugs or alcohol, or condone that kind of behavior, the child has a higher chance of developing an addiction. Peers consist of the people an individual chooses to have in their social circle. If an individual spends time with peers who abuse drugs or alcohol, they are more likely to do the same. School/work is an environment to which an individual is obligated and involves less personal relationships with fellow students or coworkers. If someone has a stressful job and drinks alcohol every night to relax, they are likely to develop an addiction. If a teen is being bullied at school, they might use drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the pain. Community, the final category, also has a big influence on the likelihood of addiction. For instance, individuals who live in poverty lack access to necessary resources, such as money, time, social support, and healthcare. Because of this, many of them resort to selling drugs in order to obtain more income, or abuse substances in order to self-medicate mental health disorders.

4. Life Experiences

Allen, Flaherty, & Ely (2010) explain, “Experiences of trauma and abuse, as well as preexisting mental health disorders, often lead to increases in substance abuse as a means of self-medication” (pp. 169-170). These traumatic experiences can include loss of a parent, domestic or physical violence, and neglect. Victims of childhood abuse often turn to drugs and alcohol to alleviate the pain of being abused at a young age. People who live with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD sometimes use drugs and alcohol just to cope with the daily stresses of life. While self-medicating is sometimes the cheaper route, it often leads an individual to becoming addicted to a substance.

After reading further into each component, it is clear to see why addiction is defined as a “complex interaction.” Just because an individual consumes drugs or alcohol, does not mean they will become addicted. Just because a child lives with substance abusing parents, does not mean they will develop an addiction. There are other components that must add up and be accounted for such as their age when they first started using, their family life, who their peers are, where they went to school, where they work, and what kind of community they live in. No one turns into an addict or alcoholic overnight. It stems from years of negative influences and experiences that are woven throughout different layers of an individual’s life.

Most people have no remorse for addicts and alcoholics because they feel addiction is a choice. Addiction does start out as a choice, but it becomes a necessity. Whether it is viewed as a choice or a disease, addiction is a major problem that is weakening our society by destroying families and claiming lives.

Therapy Session - Addiction - the HillsCan the Damage be Undone?

One myth about addiction is that it causes irreversible damage to the human brain. At one time, this myth may have been true, but new studies have proven otherwise. Queensland University of Technology researchers have discovered a new drug that can potentially reverse brain deficits caused by heavy alcohol consumption.

As (2018) describes, “Their studies in adult mice show that two weeks of daily treatment with the drug tandospirone reversed the effects of 15 weeks of binge-like alcohol consumption on neurogenesis — the ability of the brain to grow and replace neurons (brain cells)” (para. 2).

Now through modern medicine, it is possible to reboot the brain and reverse these deficits caused by alcohol abuse. Individuals suffering from addiction can also find relief from withdrawals and cravings through specific medications.

What Can You Do?

Many people are too ashamed or embarrassed to admit they need help, but treatment should be thought of as an investment into one’s future. Treatment for addiction can help save an individual’s life, no matter what level of dependency they are in.

Addiction is often related to suicides as well. Depression from addiction can become so severe, due to the destructive lifestyle that an individual becomes trapped in. Unfortunately, instead of seeking help, they take their own life out of desperation.

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, please contact the Hills Treatment Center today to get behind the neuroscience of addiction with our addiction treatment programs. Today, there are so many different treatment options available that can be catered to fit the specific needs of any individual. Always remember, giving up should never be an option!


Allen, S. F. (2010). Throwaway Moms: Maternal Incarceration and the Criminalization of Female Poverty. Journal of Women and Social Work, 25(2), 160-172.

American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2019, September 15). Definition of Addiction. Retrieved from American Society of Addiction Medicine:

Detox shock. (July 18, 2017). New York Post. New York, NY. Retrieved from

Jaffe, A. (2012, September 13). 5 damaging myths about addiction. Retrieved from CNN Wire:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, February). Genetics and epigenetics of addiction. Retrieved from National Institute on Drug Abuse:

ScienceDaily. (2018, February 8). Drug shown to reverse brain deficits caused by alcohol. Retrieved from



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