What Is the Biology of Addiction?

October 27, 2022

Even though addiction is often looked down upon as a moral failing, it is a biological process. While many view addiction as a lack of willpower, complex processes occur when an addiction develops. The first time someone talked a drink or tries drugs may be a choice, but the addiction is not. 

Having an addiction leads people to seek out the substance they are addicted to despite it causing pain, damaging relationships, and/or losing their jobs. This is due to addiction being a long-lasting and complicated brain disease that requires more than willpower to recover from. 

Misconceptions About Addiction

Addiction can be misconstrued as a choice that a person makes. It is also commonly viewed as a moral judgment. For instance, it is bad to do X, and thus those who are addicted to X are “bad people.” The issue with this perspective is it places the blame wholly on the individual without taking into account what is happening biologically. This would be equivalent to treating a child as though they have the same mental processing ability as an adult. While taking responsibility is important and often helpful, it cannot be without an understanding of the underlying processing occurring. 

Healthy Brain Function

Through research, we have learned that there are biological changes that occur in the brain during addiction. A healthy brain rewards us for behaviors like social bonding or eating, producing a repetition of this behavior which is positive. One aspect of this system is dopamine, a neuroreceptor which, when released, we feel a sense of pleasure. Dopamine is released to reward positive behaviors. It aids us in remembering a behavior, making it easier for us to repeat this behavior. 

Our brains also push us away from harmful behaviors, sending out an alarm or sense of fear when engaging in a behavior that is likely to have a negative outcome. Both of these mechanisms adjust our behaviors in ways that are helpful, increasing overall well-being and longevity.  

The Brain During Addiction

However, when becoming addicted to a substance, normal brain processes can increase the problem. For example, drugs and alcohol affect the pleasure-seeking circuits in our brain, propelling a person towards more of those substances. 

Many substances cause a release of large amounts of dopamine, more than healthy behaviors will cause. This can cause our brains to prioritize substance use over healthy behaviors. Addiction can cause the alarm centers to be on high alert, which leads a person to increase substance use to “calm” these alerts. 

The frontal cortex, a part of the brain that is incredibly important in decision-making, is also disrupted. This adds to the ongoing issue of addiction as it diminishes an individual’s ability to logically see the effects of the addiction. Lack of prefrontal cortex activity, which has been found in brain imaging of people during addiction, is part of the reason it is hard to think rationally. The changes in decision-making, judgment, memory, and behavioral control are due to these physical changes in the brain.  

Biological Risk Factors

There is still more research needed to fully understand why some people are more prone to addiction than others. However, research has found that there are risk factors, both genetics, and environment, that contribute to a person’s risk of addiction. 

It is estimated that genetics and epigenetics, the study of how the environment affects how an individual’s genes are expressed, account for between 40%-60% of addiction. While we cannot change the genes we inherit, we can aid in decreasing addiction by adjusting the environment. Factors that contribute to addiction risk include family drug use, home environment, social skills, and community.  

Drug use during formative years, childhood, and adolescence is also a factor that contributes to the risk of adult addiction. The prefrontal cortex development is occurring during adolescence and can be easily disrupted by substance abuse, affecting a person’s ability to make sound decisions later in life. These changes can make it more likely for someone to initially become involved in substance abuse. While using a substance for the first time is a choice, influences in the prefrontal cortex can affect this choice. 

Biology of Recovery

As a person begins the process of addiction recovery, the brain needs time to adjust to the changes that occur biologically. It has been shown that addiction decreases activity in the brain’s dopamine receptors, and it takes time for these receptors to come back online. Scientists have shown that there can be a substantial increase in dopamine receptors in just four months after abstaining from substance use. 

Addiction is a serious disease, which is often misunderstood as a person’s lack of willpower, effort, or ability to quit. However, addiction recovery is not a moral or willpower-based choice, and understanding that the brain changes during addiction and throughout recovery is important.

At Buena Vista Recovery, we believe in teaching clients about what is occurring biologically as a method to better understand the struggle of addiction recovery. We believe that it takes time to change behaviors that surround addiction and that over time, as the brain recuperates, our clients can better understand their choices and how they can make lasting changes in their lives. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction and you see some of the behaviors outlined above, we want to hear from you. Please call us at (480) 741-9414; we are here to help you.