Why Addiction Changes How Your Brain Works

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic but treatable disease. Many factors, such as past trauma, environmental factors, life experiences, brain chemistry, and genetics, are generally the root cause of addiction.

The most easily recognizable sign of addiction is the continued use of drugs or other substances despite the harmful consequences and negative impacts on your life. That’s the nature of addiction — it’s not enough to just want to stop. Additional signs of addiction include, but are not limited to finding reasons to use, blaming other people or things for problems, needing more to feel the same effects, sleeplessness, memory loss, or increased depression or anxiety.

If you or a loved one live with addiction, it’s important to realize you are not alone. About 23 million people in the United States are experiencing some form of addiction.

The Connection Between Addiction and the Brain

Addiction and the brain are vastly intertwined. Addiction changes the brain, which then causes the brain to assess pleasure differently and upend other drives such as motivation and learning.

It has taken researchers decades to begin to understand how addiction and the brain go hand-in-hand. But science has moved beyond the idea that people with substance use disorders are weak or flawed individuals. Experts now realize that addiction is a chronic disease that changes brain structure and function.

The Reward Center

Understanding the reward center is crucial to understanding how addiction and the brain are ultimately linked. Any event, situation, action, object, etc., can be registered as pleasurable by the brain. There are innate rewards directly correlated to survival instincts. These natural instincts include things such as food, water, and shelter. These natural rewards are crucial to survival on a primal level. Of course, those aren’t the only activities that cause the brain’s reward system to be engaged.

Your first cup of coffee in the morning, purchasing items from your favorite brand, or enjoying a delicious meal can all be assessed as pleasurable activities by your brain. As can using substances, engaging in sexual activity, or receiving monetary rewards.

When your brain feels pleasure, it releases dopamine. Dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that improves mood and increases motivation and attention. Dopamine also helps regulate movement, learning, and emotional responses. All addictive drugs stimulate the reward system by raising dopamine levels. When participating in substance use or addictive behaviors, the dopamine release is much larger. This increase in dopamine reinforces the connection between substance use or addictive behaviors and associated pleasure.

Additionally, the dopamine system is sensitive to cues — like when you smell coffee roasting in your kitchen. Your brain anticipates that you’re going to drink a cup of coffee soon. It is the anticipation of a reward that sets off our reward system. But, these cues are not enough. You must take action. The reward system is organized to engage the executive center of the brain. The brain’s executive area encompasses the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex helps you plan and follow through on activities and controls your impulses.

Reward System Loop

This reward system loop is how substance use becomes an addiction.

Dopamine also is an essential component of learning and memory. Dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter to hijack the learning system related to the brain’s reward system.

When you participate in an experience that registers as rewarding, the brain’s executive center engages. It remembers the actions you took to create the experience. Then, the reward system provides the motivation and rationalization necessary to repeat the experience. The more you repeat a pleasurable behavior, the more enforced that behavior.

You end up in a reward loop — cue, action, reward.  The consistent release of dopamine during substance use rewires brain structure. It also creates signals associated with substance use or addictive behaviors, leading to compulsion.


Another critical component to understanding how addiction and the brain are linked includes understanding substance tolerance.

If you find that you need more coffee to make it through the day, you have grown tolerant of the amount of caffeine you were consuming previously.

Tolerance is a similar process when it comes to substance use and addictive behaviors. Addiction provides a shortcut to the brain’s reward system — flooding specific structures with dopamine. Eventually, the brain adapts to the substance of choice, becoming less pleasurable. Just as you grow tolerant of our caffeine consumption, your brain adapts to substance use.

Thanks to the shortcut that addictive substances and behaviors provide, your brain can’t withstand the assault. With addictive substances, the dopamine released is anywhere from two to 10 times the amount released from natural rewards and is faster and more consistent. The brain adapts by shutting off dopamine receptors or producing less. This adaptation means that dopamine has a smaller effect on the reward center. Shutting off dopamine receptors causes the pleasure associated with addictive substances to wane.

At this point, people using addictive substances must take more of them to receive the same level of pleasure they previously derived from the lower dose.

Get Help for Addiction

Addiction is a chronic disease that profoundly affects your brain and how it operates. Understanding addiction and the brain is crucial to recognizing how substance and behavioral addictions hijack your brain.

While addiction is a disease, much like any other, it presents a set of unique challenges. There isn’t a surgery you can have, a pill you can take, or any amount of rest and relaxation that will cure addiction. It takes time, effort, support, and a treatment plan.

All Counseling can help you find a therapist who offers addiction counseling and who can support you in addiction recovery. Use our therapist directory to find a counselor or therapist that specializes in treating addiction.

Citations & References:

  • Harvard Publishing. July 2011. How Addiction Hijacks the Brain.
  • NIH, News in Health. October 2015.  Biology of Addiction – Drugs and Alcohol Can Hijack your Brain,
  • Nora D. Volkow, Scientific America. March 23, 2018. What Does it Mean When We Call Addiction a Brain Disorder?
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 10, 2020. Drugs and the Brain.
  • Dana Foundation. Cynthia M. Kuhn, Ph.D., Wilkie A. Wilson, Ph.D. April 1, 2005. How Addiction Hijacks Our Reward System.


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