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Addicts: Where Does Addiction Occur in the Brain?

The brain is undeniably the most vital organ found in the human body and one that suffers immensely from the effects of addiction. Every activity that you can think of, the brain initiates, from singing your favorite song on your commute to work to going for a run, it all starts in that three-pound control center. Your brain is what makes you you, and it controls your body’s most basic functions, the ones that make you human. 

With this in mind, it’s also a sensitive organ, one that requires the utmost care to keep it functioning correctly and to keep you healthy. 

Understanding the Brain 

The damage that alcohol can inflict on your brain may hinder its ability to regulate your bodily functions and even prevent the brain from transmitting essential communication to the rest of your body via the neurons. 

Think of your brain as a computer; it is comprised of hundreds of parts, all of which need to work together to coordinate functions and daily activities. Neurons act as the switches that control the flow of information within the brain, firing signals to other neurons as it gathers and processes information. Together, these neurons make up complex networks that communicate with one another among the different parts of the brain, spinal cord, and the trillions of nerves found throughout the body. 

The way these networks of neurons send messages involves releasing a neurotransmitter into the synapse (gap) between it and the next cell. The neurotransmitter then crosses the synapse and attaches itself to the receptors on the receiving neuron, kind of like a puzzle piece. Transporters (another type of molecule) bring back neurotransmitters into the neuron that released them, limiting or completely shutting off the signal between the neurons. 

This is just a simplified explanation of the communication process that takes place in the brain, and as you can imagine, the brain is much more complex than just being a hub for dreams, thoughts, and knowledge storage. 

How Addiction Affects the Brain 

Alcohol addiction disrupts the brain’s complex and fundamental functions by blocking chemical signals between brain cells (neurons). These sudden blockages look like impulsive behavior, slurred speech, poor memory, and slow reflexes in immediate cases of alcohol consumption. 

However, more detrimental effects can occur after extended periods of alcohol consumption because the brain will begin to adapt to these blocked signals by responding more fiercely to certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). When alcohol leaves your system, the brain will continue to over-activate the transmitters, leading to withdrawal symptoms that can damage brain cells. 

Forms of Addiction Damage

There’s no one form of damage that alcohol can cause in the brain; rather, it can affect different areas of the brain and trigger several adverse effects.

Neurotoxicity: This occurs when neurons overreact to neurotransmitters for an extended period. Overexposure to a transmitter can burn out neurons, and since these are the connectors between the different parts of the brain, you will notice slower or delayed reactions once they start burning out. 

Brain Matter Damage: Those who are dependant on alcohol may experience “brain shrinkage,” which is the reduction in the volume of both gray matter (cell bodies) and white matter (cell pathways). 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: A condition related to severe thiamine deficiency, resulting in alcohol-induced brain dysfunction. Symptoms may include disorientation, malnourishment, confusion, poor balance, and jerky eye movements. These symptoms may also snowball into memory problems, mood imbalances, and a severe lack of judgment. 

Brain damage effects increase with age and vary on the amount of alcohol consumed, and in some cases, you can find subtle differences in how brain damage occurs in men and women. 

What Parts of the Brain are Affected by Alcohol Addiction?

The effects of alcohol spread throughout the brain, reaching several essential areas and causing irreparable damage in extreme cases. Life-sustaining functions are adversely affected due to damage in the following parts of the brain:

The basal ganglia: Form a key node called the “reward circuit” and play a crucial role in positive forms of motivation and pleasurable activities like eating and socializing. Help the formation of routines and habits. Repeated exposure to alcohol forces the circuit to adapt to its presence, reducing sensitivity and making it difficult to feel pleasure from anything besides alcohol and other substances.

The extended amygdala: Plays an essential role in feelings of stress, anxiety, irritability, and unease. Excessive alcohol exposure motivates the person to seek it out during withdrawal periods due to discomfort. Eventually, a person will use alcohol to soothe the pain rather than get drunk temporarily.

The prefrontal cortex: The area responsible for crucial functions like the ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions and exercise self-control. This part of the brain is the last to mature, which is why underage drinking is that much more harmful to the development of young teens and adults. Damage to the prefrontal cortex in conjunction with the other parts of the brain leads to dramatically reduced impulse control.

In extreme cases, extended and excessive alcohol consumption can cause life-threatening damage to the brain stem. The brain stem is critical to life functions like heart rate control, breathing, and sleeping. Damage to this part of the brain can lead to a coma, paralysis in certain parts of the body, loss of cognitive functions, and even death.

Breaking Free of Addiction with Ardu Recovery Center

There’s no easy way to break free from the clutches of addiction, but there are effective ways to tackle it. At Ardu Recovery Center, you’ll find that you don’t have to go through this journey alone. We’re more than just another in-patient rehabilitation facility; we’re a support group that provides around-the-clock care for those looking to turn a new page in their lives in a safe, judgment-free environment. We’re in this together, and we tailor our program to your needs for a better chance at long-term recovery.

Give us a call today for more information and to see if Ardu Recovery center is right for you or someone you know.