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  • Writer's pictureCAROLINE Bentley

The Reward Center: The Brain & Repeated Substance Use

human brain

Have you ever wondered about what’s actually going on in the brain when someone uses alcohol or drugs? Most people can recognize the outward signs of addiction like poor decision making, acting on cravings, and impulsiveness, but what changes in the brain due to addiction? These behaviors are actually a symptom of a poorly-tuned reward center in our brains, disharmonious due to the changes that occur to the brain through repetitive substance use.

The more we know about how the brain works and the changes wrought on the brain due to addiction, the better we are able to understand how to seek recovery and bring compassion to the challenges that happen alongside addiction. This blog is focused on learning about the reward center we all have in our brains, how it becomes wired to seek out substances compulsively, and how it can also be rewired!

How Your Brain Works

The brain is a complex organ that impacts everything about who we are as people. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all happening through the perception and function of our brains! The brain can be likened to an intricate communication and processing center. It is comprised of billions of neurons that send information through networks to different areas of the brain and body.

Neurons communicate through neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are released into the gap between neurons, known as the synapse. It is these electrical pulses and chemical signals that carry a message from neuron to neuron, and this network is responsible for everything that we think, feel, and do.

woman eating an ice cream cone

The Reward Center

The neural network most relevant to addiction is the reward center of the brain. Our brain’s reward system is what motivates our behavior to seek to repeat experiences. The goal of the system is to recognize activities that are life-sustaining, like food or sex, and reward the individual with pleasure.

Any behavior or event that brings up pleasure can activate the reward system, like listening to music, shopping, exercising, or seeing the face of a loved one. The neurotransmitter involved in this process is dopamine which provides a rush of pleasure and energy (dopamine spike). This helps people to focus on what they want to achieve to experience the result.

Changes in the Brain due to Addiction

Left alone, the reward center and dopamine are not the cause of substance use disorders, as the core function of these networks is simply to help us want to do things again. What creates a shift is that substances impact the production and release of dopamine which is responsible for patterned changes in how the brain works due to addiction.

When substance use is repeated, it over activates the nucleus accumbens, which, in turn, releases an excess of dopamine. As we learned above, this encourages us to take another hit or essentially repeat the behavior linked to the dopamine release. Over time, our natural dopamine supply deteriorates, and with every intake, we come to rely more and more on the external stimuli—the substance—to feel pleasure at all.

Another known impact on the brain’s reward center is the weakening of the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of decision-making and impulse control in the brain. In a non-addicted person, the prefrontal cortex can more accurately determine when using a substance would be unwise. This explains one of the hallmark signs of a substance use disorder: repeated use despite significant negative consequences.

As you can see, this alteration in brain circuits that help to regulate our behavior to reflect our goals and values is overthrown to prioritize the substance. In this way, there are significant changes in the brain that can make it difficult for a person to “just stop” as the reward center is sending the message to motivate the person to use. This is how cravings develop and goes beyond physical withdrawal symptoms from the substance.

The Recovering Brain

Although there are changes in the brain due to addiction, know that hope is not lost! The brain is able to recover and relearn ways to feel rewarded and motivated towards other more beneficial activities. One very important fact about the brain is that it is able to change to reflect what we are learning to help keep us alive. The ability of the brain to change is called neuroplasticity, which is how neurons can develop or fade to “rewire” the brain.

guy smiling at camera

Addiction treatment provides a space for people to learn new skills, develop connections with others, and rebuild the connection to their executive functioning, which helps in decision-making.

At SagePoint IOP, we prioritize education for our clients & their families about the changes in the brain due to addiction and the hope for recovery that’s available to us by understanding and rewiring those neural pathways. We focus on evidence-based treatments that support a recovering brain. Change is possible for both you and your brain. If you or a loved one is living with addiction, please reach out today to learn more about our services.


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