Addiction Changes the Reward Centers of the Brain


Drug addiction is one of the most mysterious and confusing dilemmas in the human experience. It’s been that way for a long time, we’re just now getting it under the clinical observation of medical professionals in an attempt to truly answer the question; Why do we get addicted?

To understand how addiction works and why we develop these helpless dependencies and character-altering obsessions, we have to take a look at the way our brains function on a chemical and cellular level. Only recently in human scientific understanding have we even been able to do this kind of brain research so the findings have yet to fully ripple out into the wider culture to create real change.  With persistence and education, perhaps we can do just that.


The Brain’s Reward System

Our mammal bodies are the result of millions of years of progressive evolution by means of selective gene sequencing.  This means that we didn’t just pop out of a vacuum.  Humans are the product of simple organisms developing into more and more complex animals until we eventually arrive at a sense of self awareness and consciousness.  The bodies and brains that we inherit at birth bare the marks of the jungles, forests, deserts, and plains that our ancestors roamed in search of food, shelter, and companionship.


The brain uses many chemicals and neurological signals to process information and allow us to react on instinct to things we don’t logically understand.  It does this by rewarding behaviors that are good for survival and procreation. When we eat foods that enrich our cells, the brain feeds a small shot of the reward chemical dopamine to signal that we should pursue that food again.  When we see an attractive potential mate, our brains cue us to pursue the romance with more dopamine.


This dopamine-based reward system works in tandem with other hormonal systems– like the infamous “fight or flight” adrenaline response– to guide our behaviors toward continued survival.  


Tricking the Evolutionary Mechanism

So if the dopamine reward system is partially responsible for helping us evolve, then why is it tripping us up now?  The trouble is with our highly industrialized and sophisticated civilization. As our brains evolved, we were usually in direct competition for resources and always on the move. We didn’t have abundant access to sugary foods or the processes to refine drugs like cocaine and opium.  These are recent developments thanks to our technology and now, in 21st century America, we have so many options from which to freely choose, we can overload that dopamine button to our heart’s content.  We can engorge ourselves on delicious foods, drink ourselves silly at the bar, and pop a whole range of prescription pills like candies.


These chemicals react with spikes in dopamine in our brains.  What’s more, non-chemical behaviors like shopping, gambling, swiping through Facebook, and the excitement of pornography can also light up this euphoric sensation in the brain, triggering dopamine.  See, it’s not actually the drugs we’re addicted to most of the time.  It’s the reward response in the brain that we’re trying to trigger when we reach for drugs, alcohol, or the next funny cat video. We are seeking pleasure.  Pure and simple.


In the modern world, addictions are running rampant because our brains still operate on old-fashioned survival systems that reward behaviors and consumption that used to be rare but are now abundant. There’s no changing our hard-wired physiology. The only thing we can do is to educate and be aware of this mechanism so that we can make healthy, mature decisions as rational human adults.


Still have questions about addiction or treatment options for getting back on your feet again? Give us a call at 800.380.0012 and let the addiction experts at Lead Treatment help you find your way.