The Brain Reacts to Drugs and Alcohol
With long-term alcohol or drug abuse, the brain physically changes. The brain actually shrinks and its ability to process information is damaged. When this happens, the parts of the brain that regulate impulse control, stress management, and information processing can all be harmed.
The limbic system is an important part of the brain affected by heavy alcohol or drug use. When someone drinks or takes drugs, the limbic system emits dopamine, the substance that makes us feel good.
With prolonged use, the brain adjusts to the surges in dopamine by reducing the numbers of receptors that can process it. It also stops making as much dopamine as it used to. As a result, the brain’s reward system receives very little input and the person has a hard time experiencing pleasure of any kind. That’s why many drug and alcohol abusers can be lifeless and depressed. They are no longer interested in the things that used to bring them joy.
The Frontal Lobe: Impulse Control
The limbic system is not the only part of the brain affected by prolonged drug or alcohol abuse. The frontal lobe of the brain also suffers. It shrinks and loses its ability to function properly. This part of the brain regulates decisions, choices, and the ability to know the difference between right and wrong. When the frontal lobe is not working as it should, you cannot control the impulse to drink or take drugs. Ironically the essential part of the brain you would use to change your harmful habits is impaired by those harmful habits and unable to make the proper decisions.
In Constant Fear: The Amygdala
The frontal lobe controls other parts of the brain, like the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. Without proper control from the frontal lobe, the amygdala becomes oversensitive to stress. In this state, someone can have extreme mood swings and become trapped in a state of panic and worry. Many addicts and alcoholics are constantly fearful and rarely feel safe. This is because the amygdala is overexcited.
Cellular Structure: Lost Connections
The cellular structure of the brain is affected by heavy drinking and drug use as well. We’ve all heard that drug abuse kills brain cells. The brain has gray cells and white cells, or fibers. The gray cells control thinking and feeling while the white cells provide the connection and communication between the gray cells. They are like network cables passing information from one gray cell to another. Persistent drug and alcohol use has been proven to kill the white cells in the brain. This severs the communication pathways so that information is not passed along properly. The brain can reroute these communication pathways using the remaining white cells, but it requires abstinence and time for this to happen.
These negative effects that drugs and alcohol have on the brain are frightening. But there is good news. If someone can stop drinking or taking drugs completely, the brain begins to heal. With long-term abstinence, cognitive function and brain shrinkage can be reversed, new pathways in the brain can be forged, and a person can return to normal brain function. If someone can learn to live without the drugs or alcohol, here is hope for full physical recovery.