How the Brain Processes Drugs

Brain science is a fascinating and growing area of study, and understanding how the brain processes drugs offers much insight into addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drugs are chemicals that work by disrupting the way nerve cells in the brain transfer and process information. Different drugs have different chemical makeups—some, such as heroin, activate neurons by mimicking neurotransmitters. In effect, these chemicals trick brain receptors, locking onto them and activating the nerve cells, producing a high.

Other drugs, including amphetamines and cocaine, cause the brain to release large amounts of naturally occurring neurotransmitters that induce feelings of pleasure, which is essentially what makes them addictive. While the feelings of pleasure seem harmless, flooding the brain with neurochemicals disrupts normal, healthy functioning, according to NIDA.

The limbic system has been referred to as the “reptilian” part of the brain, as it is hypothesized that the limbic system is the oldest part of the brain. The limbic system houses the brain’s reward center, and it is where all drugs of abuse are processed. This area of the brain responds to pleasurable experiences by releasing dopamine. Some drugs induce the release of large amounts of dopamine, which is long lasting compared to the relatively small amounts of dopamine released when a person eats a piece of cheesecake or a savory dish, for example. The brain “remembers” the pleasurable experience, and seeks out the drug again. In effect, this is how addiction begins and continues.

Battling a drug addiction is more than just “willing” it away. Once the brain has made the connection between the drug and pleasure, it becomes a physical addiction.

The addiction specialists at Northbound Treatment Services’ drug and alcohol treatment center understand addiction, both physiologically and psychologically. Through its comprehensive program, Northbound helps people struggling with addiction find solutions and move forward with their lives. For more information about the chemical dependency services offered by Northbound, click here.

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