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Addiction and Neuroplasticity – How the Brain Adapts

Jun 8, 2023 | Addiction, Mental Health

Contrary to popular belief, the brain never stops forming new pathways. It does this through a process known as neuroplasticity. The re-wiring enables the brain to continue to develop from infancy – this goes on throughout your lifetime. It is also significant in recovering from brain injuries and addiction and improving brain functions. 

However, the brain is not infinitely malleable. It has designated regions that perform particular tasks. One area coordinates movement, and another region processes sensations. Each sphere has several pathways which can be restructured and used as alternative circuits. However, pathways in one region cannot mediate another brain sphere through modification.   

Nevertheless, even the little wiggle room left for re-wiring is vital in helping you adapt to various psychological and physiological conditions. The brain’s adaptive nature has several beneficial and harmful consequences.


The Brain’s Role in Stimuli Interpretation

The end goal in processing stimuli is to inform your perceptions, emotions, mood, cognition, and behavior. The source of this information is present both in the internal and external environment. Stimulus is transformed into nerve signals and taken into the central nervous system (CNS) by nerves present in the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The nerve signals are transmitted to the brain and interpreted in a process known as transduction. Transduction turns sensations into perceptions. 

There are sensory receptors, which convert external and internal stimuli to electrical nerve impulses. The receptors respond to chemical changes, light, force, and temperature. 

For instance, the eyes, the visual sensory organs, have photoreceptors that sense colors, hues, and brightness converting them into electric signals. The ears, auditory sensory organs, have mechanoreceptors that sense sound vibrations produced by the eardrum and convert them to nerve impulses. On the other hand, the nose has an olfactory system with sensory cells, possessing olfactory receptors that bind odorant molecules, enabling the brain to interpret the presence of smell. 

The goal of detecting sensations is to generate information about your internal and external environment. Thus, transduction leads to perception. Perception is a mental process that leads to an understanding of the environment using sensory input. The information acquired is actionable in other parts of the nervous system. 


Neuroplasticity and Increasing Sensitivity to Stress

The brain’s role in enhancing perception works fine for the most part. It keeps you from danger or lets you know you are in love. For instance, when you walk into oncoming traffic, stimuli from your eyes and ears are transported to the amygdala – a region of the brain. The amygdala also processes emotions or attaches meaning to stimuli. When the amygdala senses danger, it sends distress signals to the hypothalamus. 

The hypothalamus is the command center of the brain. It communicates to the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to activate the fight or flight response. The ANS stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline (a stress hormone) which increases energy production. Adrenaline also favors the release of cortisol. The two biomolecules work in tandem to sustain the stress response. High energy produced by the stress response biomolecules enables you to escape oncoming traffic in a blink of an eye. 

However, constant exposure to a stressful stimulus is where the problem lies. When the amygdala was stimulated in response to the stress stimuli, it released neurotransmitters – GABA, glutamate, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which created a nerve circuit in response to that stimulus. Overstimulation by that stimulus strengthens this pathway by triggering the gene expression of amygdala neurotransmitters and their receptors to reinforce the response. 

Additionally, the persistent presence of the stressor also alters the expression of micro RNA molecules significant in the gene expression of biomolecules in the synaptic regions of circuits that activate and sustain the stress response. The change amplifies your sensitivity to that stressor and changes the brain preferences to the new pathway over the natural stress response pathway. 

When you anticipate this stressor or think about it, the amygdala goes berserk and initiates the stress response even though the danger is perceived. The aftermath of the amygdala’s hyperactivity is mood disorders – persistent anxiety, panic attacks, or depression. It also creates physiological problems like cardiovascular illness and gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, nausea, hyperacidity, and constipation. 


Re-wiring the Brain to Counter Stress Sensitivity

Through counseling and medication, the brain can be re-wired to function well again. Therapy helps you recognize internal and external stimuli that trigger the stress response. It also teaches you techniques and skills that encourage positive thinking, emotion regulation, and behavioral modification.  

The activities, support, and accountability from therapy enable your brain to adapt (again) to new circuits that are beneficial for your mental and physical health. The process takes time and is not easy. Therefore, guidance from a therapist with the expertise, resources, and experience in neuroplasticity is vital. 


How the Brain Adapts to Substance Abuse Use

The brain also adapts to substance use by forming new nerve circuits. Substances such as drugs, alcohol, painkillers, comfort food, energy drinks, caffeine, and so forth are psychoactive. They can interfere with the brain’s functions by disrupting the chemicals in the brain. 

Psychostimulants hyper boost the release of dopamine – a neurotransmitter known for sustaining feelings of pleasure. Dopamine, along with the body’s naturally occurring opioids like endorphins, suppresses the stress response. They also mediate pathways that enhance relaxation, sleep, and appetite. However, substance abuse-activated dopaminergic circuits have a different effect from natural feedback loops. 

The brain favors the artificial circuit because of continued use. The process works more like forming a new hiking trail. Initially, going through a new path is difficult. However, the more you traverse the trail, the easier it becomes to navigate. With time the trail becomes your preferred route because of familiarity. 

Similarly, psychoactive substance modifies the brain by chemically destabilizing the existing circuits. For instance, dopamine is released in higher concentrations making its effect last longer in the synapse. The continuous presence of dopamine in the synapses also increases the expression of its receptors. The outcome is an intense state of euphoria. 

Unfortunately, dopamine also increases motivation toward substance use. It works alongside serotonin which reinforces feelings of pleasure and inhibits the stress response molecules. When the drug wears out, serotonin levels suddenly reduce, heightening your sensitivity to the stress response hormones and neurotransmitters. 

The anxiety attacks and depressive mood unleashed pale in comparison to what prevails when the natural pathway is activated. Furthermore, natural biomolecules cannot sufficiently activate the reward pathway once the brain normalizes substance-dependent activation. Only the addictive substance, in much higher doses, can rectify the problem – that is why it is difficult to overcome addiction and easy to relapse. 


The Role of Neuroplasticity in Overcoming Addiction. 

The journey to overcoming addiction is lifelong. Once the brain learns, it cannot unlearn. It just replaces the pathway and stores the previous information until there an opportune time presents itself. With the circuits within arm’s reach and adverse side effects from medication and withdrawal symptoms, the probability of relapse increases. 

Additionally, the brain resists change. It puts up a fight by increasing your craving for the substance and raises the bar higher when you unexpectedly stop. Your next indulgence will require higher doses of the substance to reach that coveted ‘high.’ The brain’s demands override the sheer will to want out of the addiction – that is why treatment can be so important in helping you manage your addiction. 

Overcoming addiction may require psychotherapy and medication. Psychotherapy is vital in teaching your brain new constructive ways of coping. In therapy, you learn techniques and skills that form new pathways to override the substance use feedback loops.  

Several types of psychotherapies can enable you to adjust your brain circuits. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is significant in helping you recognize, avoid and learn situations that increase your propensity to substance abuse. CBT also reinforces adaptive behavior and raises awareness of how you became a slave to substance use in the first place. 

Group therapy or support groups such as AA are often an important aspect of recovery. It provides accountability and support. It also lets the addict learn from other people’s experiences and see the possibility of living without depending on substance use. 

Pharmacotherapy helps alleviate withdrawal symptoms and ease the process of transition. Medication can be a substitute for the substance with mild effects to help your brain adapt to not depending on the drug. The intervention can be administered in small doses to reduce dependency and side effects. 


Train Your Brain Well 

The brain is a fascinating organ. However, its ability to adapt to the environment is both a blessing and a curse. It knows its game so well, making it essential in enhancing learning, comprehension, memory retention, concentration, thinking, and emotional and behavioral regulation. With the right techniques and skills, the brain can remain resilient amid chaos.  

The brain can bounce back and remain strong, but it can also shut down and self-destruct. It is teachable and stubbornly holds on to whatever it has learned. The outcome depends on how you train it to adapt. Your mental well-being depends on how you treat the brain. Learn to take on activities that help your brain flourish by developing constructive habits today. Your brain’s capabilities depend on your decision to build better pathways. 


New Dimensions Can Help!

New Dimensions provides Intensive Outpatient Therapy for adolescents and adults who are struggling with alcoholism, depression, anxiety, trauma, PTSD, or other mental health or substance abuse issues.  To learn more about our treatment programs, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at