Therapist Blog

Addiction and the Brain

As a psychotherapist in San Jose, California, I have a lot of clients ask me what addiction does to the brain. Through all of the research done about drug addiction and its affects on the brain, one can see how drug addiction is considered a brain disease. Drug addiction is a disabling disease and can ruin a person's life. By taking drugs, a person's brain becomes rewired to tolerate high amounts of dopamine neurotransmitters, but once those high amounts of dopamine cease to exist, the person experiences withdrawal symptoms. However, there are ways drug addicts can control their drug intake by using classical conditioning techniques, which allows them to associate drugs with negative attributes.

For some time, researchers have suggested that addiction may be a brain disease. The latest research indicates that addiction disrupts brain circuitry. Studies at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institutes of Health, have offered remarkable insights into how the human brain works and how it molds behaviors that affect drug addiction. Because of this research, scientists can now investigate issues that were previously inaccessible, such as how environmental factors and genes affect how the brain responds to drugs of abuse to drive the process of addiction.

Research have demonstrated how drugs affect gene expression and brain circuitry, and how these factors affect human behavior. They have shed new light on the relationship between drug abuse and mental illness, and the roles played by heredity, age, and other factors in increased vulnerability to addiction. New knowledge from future research will guide new strategies and change the way clinicians approach the prevention and treatment of addiction.

Although initial drug use might be voluntary, once addiction develops control is markedly disrupted. Imaging studies have shown specific abnormalities in the brains of some, but not all, addicted individuals. While scientific advancements in the understanding of addiction have occurred at unprecedented speed in recent years, unanswered questions remain that highlight the need for further research to better define the neurobiological processes involved in addiction.

More addiction research is needed and future investigations will hopefully include:

  • Studies that further explain the brain's circuitry involved in making addicted individuals more responsive to biochemical changes caused by drugs of abuse;
  • Explorations that look more deeply into the genetic and environmental factors associated with addiction, as well as the relationship between addiction and co-occurring mental illness;
  • Developing tailored preventive interventions that take socioeconomic, cultural, age, and gender characteristics into consideration;
  • Investigating new and existing medications that show potential as therapeutic options; and
  • Pairing cognitive-behavioral strategies with medications to treat the brain changes brought about by chronic drug exposure.

New methodologies can provide a greater understanding of drug addiction. To effectively treat and prevent drug addiction, psychotherapists and psychologists need to tailor psychotherapy remove the condition's social stigma and enhance the involvement of the medical community and boost the contributions of the pharmaceutical industry in developing new medications and encourage the participation of insurers. Eventually, research will branch out into brain imagery for all types of addictions, including soft addictions.

Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.


Fredricks, Randi. (2008) Healing & Wholeness: Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Mental Health. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.