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How Drug Addiction Affects Brain Communication

When individuals ingest drugs, they tamper with the brain’s chemistry. Over time, repeated use can sometimes lead to addiction, and this wreaks havoc on the brain’s ability to function properly. Yes, drug addiction affects brain communication in a negative way.

Healthy Communication in the Brain

When the brain is healthy, the cells which compose it are always communicating with each other. These cells (called neurons) are linked into complex networks and send signals throughout these networks. When one neuron in the network becomes stimulated, an electrical pulse flows down the cell’s body to the end of the cell (called the synapse).
When the signal reaches the synapse, chemicals called neurotransmitters release into space (called the synaptic cleft) between the active neuron and the next neuron in the network. On the outside of the second neuron are small structures called neuroreceptors. The neurotransmitters fit into these receptors like keys in a lock. When the key gets inserted into the lock, the next neuron becomes stimulated and sends a signal down its body to the synapse, thereby stimulating the next neuron in the chain.

How Addiction Affects Brain Communication

Although different kinds of drugs operate on the brain in various ways, in nearly all cases drugs taken to alter one’s state of mind work by tampering with this communication system. For example, some drugs contain chemicals (such as THC in marijuana) which mimic the behavior of certain neurotransmitters. When THC is present in the brain, it stimulates the neurons in personal networks. This causes abnormal levels of activation. Drugs like cocaine work by blocking the little pumps which then bring the neurotransmitter dopamine back into the neuron which releases it. By blocking the reuptake of dopamine, cocaine causes increased levels of dopamine to be available in the synaptic cleft, and this leads to higher levels of stimulation in these neurons. This process is how addiction affects brain communication.

Tolerance to Substances

When you ingest a particular drug repeatedly over time, the brain develops a tolerance to it. The primary way it does this is by adjusting the number of neuroreceptors on the neuron. So, for example, when a person develops a tolerance to cocaine, this is because of a reduction in the number of dopamine-specific neuroreceptors. Less dopamine-specific neuroreceptors mean that there are less “locks” to insert the dopamine “keys” into. Thus, even though cocaine would still block the reuptake of dopamine, the excess dopamine in the synaptic cleft no longer can stimulate the neuron at a higher rate because there are not as many neuroreceptors with which to bind.

More Drug Abuse and Addiction

Tolerance will tend to increase over time. This can ultimately lead to addiction. Tolerance occurs as a result of the damage caused by the severe and prolonged adjustment of neuroreceptors in the brain. For example, a person who has become addicted to cocaine has fewer dopamine neuroreceptors than an average individual. Having fewer dopamine neuroreceptors means that it takes significantly more dopamine than usual for these neurons to fire. Dopamine is responsible for reward and happiness. Cocaine-addicted individuals need to bring about abnormally high levels of dopamine for their brain to correctly produce certain positive emotions.

In response to this, the person will become strongly motivated to use more cocaine to obtain a feeling of normalcy. At the same time, the brain will continue to downregulate dopamine receptors. This makes the drug less and less efficient. The person will then need to obtain even more of the drug to achieve the same results as before.

The absence of cocaine will also produce physical withdrawal symptoms, where the body undergoes a series of unpleasant bodily sensations. To avoid withdrawal, the individual will become even more motivated to take more of the drug. This will only cause more damage to the brain.

Recovering from Addiction

The good news is that through seeking help, individuals suffering from substance abuse can heal. This process can take time and involves many different components. One of the most critical processes occurs as the brain recovers from the addiction. It does this primarily by readjusting the number of neuroreceptors in the brain to their earlier numbers. By doing this, the brain can function properly again. It no longer needs the drug to be healthy. As you recover, addiction affects brain communication less and less. Thus,  your brain will return to its healthy state without the need for drugs.

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