Why an Addict’s Brain Is Wired To Seek Rewards

Last updated on January 8th, 2024 at 12:43 pm

A woman, with an addict's brain wired to seek rewards, sitting on a rock with a cup of coffee.

Addicts cannot control their behavior. Many people don’t believe this. However, an addict’s brain has been rewired. Its goal is to seek rewards. The person will do so even when they know there are negative consequences. This rewiring is the result of changes in the brain’s dopamine pathways. These changes come with prolonged substance use.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a chemical produced by the human brain. The right balance is key for mental health and feeling motivated. Although dopamine has a reputation as the “pleasure molecule,” its role is much more complex and critical for nearly all parts of thinking and behavior. What role does it play in addiction?

Dopamine’s Role in Addiction

In those prone to addiction, substances like drugs or alcohol cause dopamine to flood the system in unusually high levels. With repeated exposure, the brain attempts to compensate for this unnaturally high dopamine by reducing receptor sites and limiting production. As tolerance builds, the addict needs more and more of the substance just to feel some semblance of normal pleasure. Essentially, the baseline state shifts. What once registered as a medium level of reward is now experienced as dissatisfaction. The brain has adapted to expect an artificially inflated level of dopamine. The user needs addiction recovery in Orange County to overcome this.

Compulsive Drug Use

This altered dopamine system leads those struggling with addiction to compulsively seek their drug of choice. The promise of that high dopamine flood blocks out all other goals and rewards, despite the havoc the addiction causes in their lives. Even when faced with lost jobs, destroyed relationships, financial ruin, and deteriorating health, the addict’s hijacked brain screams out for more. The compulsion to use becomes more powerful than the ability to weigh negative consequences.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Additionally, withdrawal symptoms that accompany abstinence from the addictive substance are profoundly unpleasant, essentially punishing sober behavior. Nausea, headache, insomnia, and depression deter the addict from quitting. Taking another hit of the substance will swiftly alleviate these symptoms, essentially a negative reinforcement of using. The addict learns that more consumption equals feeling better.

The Brain’s Memory Pathways

Over time, memory pathways in the brain also change to highlight and prioritize drug-seeking. Environments, people, sights, and sounds associated with using become triggering cuesthat release a rush of dopamine, firing up cravings. The urge to use eventually becomes intertwined with everyday behaviors, becoming ever-present. Relapse often occurs due to this learned association between environmental cues and the reward of substance use.

An Ongoing Battle

Even after achieving abstinence, the addict’s brain remains vulnerable to this reward-centric wiring. In fact, the altered dopamine system never fully normalizes, meaning the addict essentially suffers from a chronic disease. The memory of the substance’s power and the triggers for craving cannot be fully erased. Vulnerability to compulsive substance-seeking lives on, requiring constant vigilance and maintenance of sobriety behaviors. Even after years of abstinence, just one hit can re-activate addiction’s neurobiological hold.  

Understanding the science behind addiction’s uniquely stubborn grip on the brain has opened the door to better treatment approaches. Medications aimed at normalizing the dopamine reward system show promise. Behavioral therapies build new reward pathways to motivate sober functioning. Mindfulness teaches addicts to endure rather than eliminate cravings by compassionately observing urge sensations come and go. Still, undoing and retraining addiction neurocircuitry remains an ongoing challenge for both individuals and treatment providers alike.

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