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How Does Addiction Change the Brain?

Addiction, also known as substance abuse disorder, is a chronic illness whose development and maintenance are influenced by biology, psychology, and social and environmental settings. Addiction may be an inherited condition in about half of all people. Your genes may influence the reward level you experience when trying a substance, your overall engagement level with the substance in question, how the addiction affects your behavior, and how your body and brain to process the overall experience. Using the substance may have physical effects, affect the brain, and interfere with all aspects of your life.

Know the Symptoms

If you experience addiction, you may not even realize it. Your body may send messages you ignore; the same goes for your brain. Once in the throes of addiction, you may also dismiss pleas from loved ones to get the problem under control. There are, however, unmistakable signs to watch for:

    • You experience impaired control, with a craving to use the substance, or failed efforts to cut down or control the problem.
    • You have social problems as a result, characterized by trouble at work, school, or home. Even worse? You may give up social, work, or favorite pastimes due to substance use.
    • There’s a pattern of risky substance use in dangerous settings, and you keep doing it even with apparent dangers. You may just stop caring about the consequences.
  • The substance begins to have adverse effects, forcing you to need greater quantities for the same effect. You also may have withdrawal symptoms based on the substance in question.

Ketamine Therapy as a Treatment for Addiction

Ketamine is a powerful medicine created in the early 1960s as a new kind of anesthetic. It was field-tested on wounded U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam and was so successful that its approval was fast-tracked by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1970. Besides quickly rendering people and animals unconscious or otherwise sedated, ketamine results in powerful but temporary changes in how the brain perceives pain and trauma, especially when dispensed in low doses.

Tips for Dealing with Addiction

Many people fail to recognize with an addiction that recovery doesn’t begin when you stop using the substance but when you create a new life where it’s more desirable not to use than to use. Tips to follow:

  • Avoid high-risk settings where you may be tempted to use the substance again.
  • Learn to relax.
  • Develop coping skills.
  • Be honest with yourself and others.
  • Keep a daily journal.
  • If you’re in a treatment program, follow it.
  • Eat healthily and get daily exercise.

The Brain and Addiction

Anyone, regardless of their addiction level, can tell you their brain is affected by the substance they’re using. Not only are there physical problems because of addiction, but psychological damage, too. 

Almost all addictive drugs directly or indirectly affect your brain’s reward system by flooding its circuitry with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger, residing in parts of the brain regulating cognition, emotion, motivation, movement, and pleasure. When the reward system gets kickstarted at normal levels, it pays dividends for your natural behaviors. But if you overstimulate the reward system with drugs or another substance, effects are realized which strongly underpin the act of substance use, teaching you to repeat it.

Parts of the brain which may be changed by addiction include:

  • The basal ganglia, which influence positive forms of motivation, including pleasure derived from healthy activities like eating, socializing, and intimacy, are critical in building habits and routines.
  • The extended amygdala is important for anxiety, irritability, and unease after withdrawal. Once the drug high diminishes and re-motivates you, you can find and use the drug again.
  • The prefrontal cortex powers are critical for thinking, planning, solving problems, decision making, and self-control over whims. This part of the brain takes the longest to mature, rendering teenagers most susceptible.

If you have an addiction, your brain makes fewer neurotransmitters in the reward path or reduces the number of receptors that receive signals about what’s happening.

The brain can sometimes experience irreparable harm in people with an addiction, making it hard to recover and live a productive, healthy life. If you have an addiction, see a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including medicine, therapy, or even newer ketamine therapy.

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