Scientific research once proclaimed that the brain stopped developing upon reaching adulthood making any damage or trauma permanent. That theory has been widely debunked with the discovery of neuroplasticity which now recognizes the mind as a highly resilient organ that continues to evolve and react to stimuli throughout its lifespan. Addiction science has been able to use this information to help those in recovery rewire their brains and restore the functions that substance use disorder may have damaged giving hope to many who strive to better their lives in treatment.
How Neuroplasticity Works
To explain neuroplasticity, we can think about creating the brain as a sculpture. Scientists, who we will consider artists for this analogy, previously suggested that the mind was shaped like a hunk of stone that gets chiseled away with experiences leaving holes and spaces that can’t be undone. However, the brain is much more fluid or pliable, much like the sculptor’s medium of clay, where the structure and function of the brain can be retained and molded endlessly.
The neural pathways in the brain act as highways, helping connect the brain and nervous system to various points. Every time a feeling thought, or action occurs, a new mental path is created. Each time these occurrences are repeated that pathway is strengthened while those pathways that are rarely used tend to weaken over time.
Pathways to Addiction
Addiction heavily manipulates the reward pathway in the brain as the pleasure received from being high is repeated, eventually leading to substance use disorder. When a substance like opioids is ingested, the body is flooded with dopamine from a powerful neurotransmitter, giving an intense feeling of pleasure. The brain then takes note that this activity gave the body a positive feeling, and thus encourages repetition.
The dopamine release created by these substances is much greater than any naturally occurring sensation, causing it to signal to the brain that its repeated use is of high priority. During this time, the other pathways of the brain are weakened as the body builds tolerance to the waves of artificial dopamine, making it difficult for the body to adapt and compensate without and consequently adding to the difficulty of withdrawal and strength of cravings. This is how substance misuse can quickly unravel into addiction.
Though the nature of neuroplasticity can be a factor in the development of a substance use disorder, understanding the way it works can also help people rewire their brains in treatment and recovery. With specific mental exercises, the strong pathways that are attributed to substance use can be intercepted and reworked, helping people recognize triggers to avoid and make more healthy, conscious decisions to alter their pleasure pathways. This means that people can be given power over their addictions in order to overcome them, rather than viewing themselves as “damaged” or “addicts” for the rest of their lives.
The breakthroughs in neuroplasticity research have helped validate addiction as a disease that should be treated as any other chronic condition. Ending the harmful stigma surrounding substance use disorder will help people bypass societal barriers and receive the treatment they need, helping tackle the nation-wide opioid epidemic in America.