The Brain’s Plasticity: Friend and Foe

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It was once believed that the changes made to the brain from addiction were irreversible, but new research tells us that this is not true. The damage can be reversible, and new cells and connections can be formed. This happens because of the brain’s plasticity, or ability to be shaped and molded based on the environment or habitat. Unfortunately, the brain’s biggest asset is also its biggest enemy. This plasticity is what allows addictive thinking and behaviors to form.

Understanding the Brain’s Structure

The brain is designed to be adaptable, which is a good thing. This is what helps us deal with negative emotions, learn healthy behaviors, memorize new information and form memories. The brain is always changing and evolving based on environmental factors, normal brain development and age. When learning new information, studies show that the brain undergoes a change in the internal structure of the neurons and an increase in the number of synapses between neurons.

There are a number of things that can interfere with the brain’s progress, such as injury, stroke or a chemical addiction. In the case of addiction, a rush of pleasure from the release of dopamine in the brain causes it to adapt and change. With continued use, the brain continues to change permanently. This is why addiction is classified as an impulsive, chronic disease. The brain becomes dependent on getting this rush and it influences the addict to do just about anything to get it.

With a chemical addiction, the number of receptors that naturally release dopamine are decreased and less dopamine is released. This occurs because the brain is responding to this unusually high level of dopamine so the addict has to use more of the drug to get the same high. Additional effects that occur in the brain include the weakening of connections between cells and a decrease in the construction of new cells. The brain starts molding around the addiction, forming new, unhealthy behaviors that can impact anything from thinking to learning to feeling emotion.

Breaking Free from Addiction

The brain’s plasticity is certainly a challenge in addiction, but this ability to adapt to its environment is what allows recovery to take place.  The mindset of “once an addict, always an addict” is no longer valid. The more we understand the brain’s structure, the more we can modify treatment so that it’s more effective, efficient and successful. This thinking is why addiction treatment has evolved over the years, focusing more on the addict’s thinking and the relearning of new, healthy behaviors as opposed to getting the drug out of the body and dealing with the physical effects.

Retraining the Addicted Brain

The goal of addiction treatment is to retrain the brain to support healthy habits such as exercising, eating healthy foods, socializing with friends or starting a new hobby. Research also shows that having a strong and supportive network of friends and family is helpful in strengthening new brain connections and reducing the risk of relapse. Although not every addict has the same positive relationships in their personal life, it’s reassuring to know that the right environment will make a difference in recovery. An addict does not have to be a prisoner in their own body.

Here are a few key points to remember.

  • When your brain sends a message and you follow it, it strengthens the brain pattern.
  • When your brain sends a message and you fight it, it also strengthens the brain pattern.
  • When your brain sends a message, you acknowledge it, recognize its true source and  relabel it as harmful or false, you weaken the pattern.

What are some of the ways that recovering addicts can reshape the brain?

  • Engaging in healthy behaviors such as interacting with others, taking on a new hobby, volunteering, eating wholesome meals, exercising and meditating.
  • Practicing alternative mind-body therapies such as neurofeedback, hypnosis, acupuncture, chiropractic care or massage therapy.
  • Being surrounded by positive influences such as friends and family who are in total support of recovery.
  • Attending support groups and therapy. Counseling is designed to help people work through problems, make sense of past experiences and realize that the addiction is not in control.
  • Working at recovery each day. The brain can only be retrained if the addict continues to work at their recovery and change their thinking patterns.

We’ve already made huge strides in understanding addiction and improving addiction treatment. We hope that in the future, researchers will better understand which treatments are most effective and offer the greatest potential for complete healing.