Healing from Addiction with the Brain's Neuroplasticity

For decades, people thought that once the brain got damaged, it could not repair itself. However, scientists have found that the brain can regenerate neurons and form new connections in recent years. Researchers have also found out that if they can make old cells function better or produce new ones, they can slow down or even reverse many of the effects of aging on the brain.

The brain is a beautiful organ. It's capable of so many feats that we take for granted. One thing neuroscience has brought to light is that when individual neurons get damaged, the brain will try to make new connections or neural pathways as workarounds for the damage, which is called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is a term that describes the brain's ability to change itself because of new or repetitious stimuli it receives from its environment. These stimuli could be anything from exposure to new information, learning new skills or changes in behavior and thoughts.

Evidence of brain alterations in drug addiction is highlighted in a new learning model suggested by Dr. Marc Lewis in the New England Journal of Medicine. This model attributes these changes to normal, habitual learning rather than pathology or illness. In spite of the fact that this learning model acknowledges the negative effects of drug addiction, it views this behavior as a normal and situation-specific reaction to stressful external cues. Many addiction experts and doctors, including NIDA head Dr. Nora Volkow, believe that addiction is a disease of the brain that may be induced by a combination of biological, psychological, and social variables. Changes in the brain's reward, stress, and self-control systems define addiction, which is the term used by NIDA to designate the most severe and persistent type of drug use disease. Because our brain is changeable, addiction is recognized as curable by both the learning and brain illness models.

Neuroplasticity and Experiential Learning

Studies of first-time drug users have found that the reasons for taking a drug may vary and include curiosity, personality, circumstances, or life events. First-time exposure to a drug can increase the release of a neurotransmitter in the brain, known as dopamine, which imparts feelings of pleasure and reward. Their brain continues to link pleasure compensation with the drug’s effects.

Increased dopamine levels from the brain’s reward system can lead to more changes through neuroplasticity following repetitious exposure to a drug a person chooses to use. Repeated exposure to these addictive substances leads to neuroplasticity changes via learning that is experience-dependent, making it extremely difficult for many people to quit using the drugs.

Understanding How a Diseased Brain Heals

Many factors can lead to addiction which could be genetic, environmental and socially related. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a disease of the brain that results in significant modifications in the brain's self-control, stress and reward systems.

Before the science community understood the power of neuroplasticity, many viewed addiction as merely an incurable brain disorder. However, now, thanks to what we've seen through the miraculous nature of the brain's plasticity, according to Maria Mavrikaki, PhD, a contributor of the Harvard Health blog, “both learning and brain disease models accept with a consensus that addiction is treatable.” For this reason, addiction specialists want to make it well-known and conceivable that recovery from substance use disorders of all types and levels of severity is possible.

You can think of addiction and recovery as neuroplastic phenomena because they can be adaptive and constructive or maladaptive and destructive. Neuroplasticity is critical to the development of addiction, but it is also at the root of recovery.

When a person is in recovery from substance use disorder, each day they are abstinent from drugs or alcohol, their brain creates new neural pathways to reinforce new, positive habits. Each time a new connection forms, like when a person engages in stress-relieving hobbies instead of using substances, it reconditions the brain—particularly the reward system. The person can once again improve their life's quality with healthy choices and positive reinforcement for those choices from their body.

It's part of the habit or feedback loop when a person strengthens those new pathways with repeated behaviors. The brain that once rewarded the body with substance use now excretes dopamine when they do constructive, healthier activities. The connection of the new adaptive behaviors strengthens as the former pathways weaken and eventually atrophy with sustained recovery.

Neuroplasticity and Relapse

Neuroplasticity refers to alterations in neuronal function caused by drug use that might persist for many hours or weeks after use ceases. It's a shift that might last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Neuroplasticity may be broken down into two categories: the temporary changes that must occur before a new behavior can be learnt, and the stable information that must be recovered in order to allow a taught behavior be carried out. 

Regulated relapse is the first stage of relapse, while compulsive relapse is the second. In a regulated relapse, the person makes the conscious choice to begin using again. In cases of compulsive relapse, the individual does not voluntarily return to drug or alcohol use. The desire to take drugs returns when the individual is confronted with environmental signals or stresses that they have come to identify with drug use. 

However, pharmaceutical and behavioral therapies that reward and encourage good choices are most effective in helping people make the transition from controlled relapse to social use or abstinence. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one example of a tried and true behavioral intervention, but there are others, such as acquiring a stable career or reconnecting with old friends and family.

Leveraging Neuroplasticity for Addiction Recovery

You can witness the magnificent feat of neuroplasticity throughout your lifetime as you create new habits and learn new skills. Adopting new cognitive patterns is beneficial to recovery. So, psychotherapeutic approaches, like cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT, are a popular modality in treatments for addiction recovery.

Much of CBT is built on principles of neuroplasticity by taking advantage of a practitioner's brain to change its response to stimuli and triggers. By developing more effective coping strategies and understanding underlying thoughts and behavior responses, a person can leverage their brain's plastic nature using CBT and other interventions to resist cravings for drugs or alcohol.

In order to combat the growing problem of substance use disorders, many treatment centers are combining behavioral therapies with medication management and support groups to facilitate recovery. It is the combination of these components that make the treatments received at a drug rehab most effective. An inpatient rehab will also include detox, which you’ll find is medically managed at any of the top-rated treatment centers.

Many good things in life get sidelined by addiction or when a person uses substances as a maladaptive response to cope with stress or circumstances. But thanks to the brain's knack for changing itself over time through conditioning with its superpower, neuroplasticity, there is more hope than ever for those who want to improve the quality of their life and live soberly.

You can learn CBT and other behavioral therapies to combat addiction and prevent relapse at substance abuse treatment centers like Wish Recovery. Contact us today to learn how.

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