Neurobiology of Addiction

Substance use disorders result from changes in the brain that can occur with repeated use of alcohol or drugs. The most severe expression of the disorder, addiction, is associated with changes in the function of brain circuits involved in pleasure (the reward system), learning, stress, decision making, and self-control. Every substance has slightly different effects on the brain, but all addictive drugs, including alcohol, opioids, and cocaine, produce a pleasurable surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia; neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells. As substance use increases, these circuits adapt. They scale back their sensitivity to dopamine, leading to a reduction in a substance’s ability to produce euphoria or the “high” that comes from using it. This is known as tolerance, and it reflects the way that the brain maintains balance and adjusts to a “new normal”—the frequent presence of the substance. However, as a result, users often increase the amount of the substance they take so that they can reach the level of high they are used to. These same circuits control our ability to take pleasure from ordinary rewards like food, sex, and social interaction, and when they are disrupted by substance use, the rest of life can feel less and less enjoyable to the user when they are not using the substance.

  • Marijuana use
  • Opioid dependence
  • Opioid treatment
  • Advances in addiction psychology
  • Anxiety, Depression and Insomnia
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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