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How the Brain's Dopamine Reward System Affects Addiction

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), drugs and chemicals affect the brain by tapping into its communication system and interfering with the way neurons send, receive and process information. Certain drugs like heroin and marijuana can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of natural neurotransmitters, which fools the brain receptors and lets the drugs attach onto and activate the neurons. Recent developments in neurobiology have given a better insight into what addiction actually is. By studying the brain’s reaction to different substances, scientists have been able to discover that drug abuse can actually alter the chemical makeup of the brain, which is what causes addiction.

The Brain’s Reward System

When a person does something pleasurable, the brain processes any such activity in the same way, whether it is pleasure received through a delicious meal or a sexual encounter. In each case the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is also known as the brain’s reward center. Essentially, the reward system of the brain ensures that we as humans keep doing life sustaining activities like eating food and drinking water. However, the system goes into overdrive when people use drugs or alcohol.

Drug Abuse and the Reward System

A person using drugs will experience a massive surge of dopamine in the brain, much more than he would experience during a meal or similar mundane activity. This is because the amount of dopamine released due to drug use is between two and ten times higher than natural rewards, and the sensation lasts longer.  Furthermore, the dopamine is released faster. So what causes a drug to be addictive? There are three main contributing factors:


  • The speed with which it promotes dopamine release.
  • The intensity or strength of the dopamine release.
  • The reliability of the dopamine release.


This is why the most addictive drugs of abuse are often smoked or injected, since that causes the drug to get to the brain much quicker. And because the feeling of pleasure is so much greater than that of natural rewards, the brain begins to want more and more of it to produce the same feeling.

Of course, for a person to become addicted to a harmful substance, he must take the substance to begin with. However, many people are able to experiment with drugs without getting addicted. The question is, what makes some people get addicted? Science says that addiction is caused partly by genetics and partly by environment. Some people have a less active reward center, which makes them depressed even before they start taking drugs. In other cases, mental illness might play a role. Whatever the reason, it is important to know that once the brain’s reward system has been affected by drug abuse, it becomes incredibly difficult to stop.


Serenity Oaks Wellness is a 5-week long treatment program where clients regain their ability to live and restore their confidence in living without drugs and alcohol. We seek to adorn each client with the tools and foundation they need for living a beautiful life of recovery. Call us today for information: 844-720-6847

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At Serenity Oaks Wellness Center, we offer residential detox and addiction treatment with a wide range of modalities to address the needs of all our clients. Our high staff-to-client ratio ensures everyone that enters our facility gets the personal attention they need and deserve for a safe and successful detox process. To learn more about our program, contact Serenity Oaks Wellness Center today at 844-720-6847.
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