Understanding how drug abuse and drug addiction changes the brain – Drug facts
Drug addiction is a medically recognised chronic and progressive brain disease that occurs through excessive exposure to drugs.
While drug addiction cannot be cured, it can be successfully arrested with the correct, comprehensive treatment plan, and recovery from drug addiction can be maintained.
If you or a loved one suffer from an addiction to drugs, you may be looking to understand how this complex disorder manifests, how it is treated and the first steps to getting effective professional help.
Here, Detox Plus explains why drug addiction tragically kills so many people every year, how it affects the brain, how to spot drug addiction in a family member, and more importantly, how evidence-based treatment methods can help in undoing the damage caused by active drug abuse.
What is drug addiction?
The definition of drug addiction according to the National Institutes on Health, The US Library of National Medicine, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the DSM- 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders, edition 5) is that drug addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disorder that comprises of three stages.
The three stages of drug addiction:
- Preoccupation /anticipation
- Withdrawal /negative effects 1
These are the main components of the addiction cycle. Each stage leads to the next with a certain inevitability, as the affected person becomes powerless in their struggle to stop taking drugs 1
A drug abuser develops into a drug addict when there is a shift in the priority of the substance being abused.
As the brain changes over time to adapt to an ever-increasing exposure to drugs, alcohol or behaviour, the brain’s reward system shifts from positive reinforcement motivation to negative reinforcement motivation. At this point, the addicted brain prioritises the drug or behaviour above basic human needs, such as love, connection, shelter and even food 2
When a drug-addicted person experiences a negative consequence resulting from their drug use, they may well want to stop using drugs. However, the alterations to the brains circuits and it’s neuroplasticity compel them to continue in their drug-seeking and taking behaviour, regardless of the risks and possible consequences involved 3
Even when a person manages to stop taking drugs and detoxes, the changes to the brain are long-lasting and remain. These changes are what drives a person to experience frequent relapses in their disease.
Drug addiction can be effectively treated through drug detoxification (clearing the body and brain of the addictive substance), rehabilitation (addressing thoughts and behaviours related to addiction and their underlying causes), aftercare (addressing environmental issues, social issues, personal relationships, occupational issues and financial issues) and continued personal growth in the maintenance stage of recovery.
The key to long-lasting recovery from drug addiction is change. A person must make profound changes to their life, coping mechanisms, thought processes and behaviour to avoid addiction relapse.
Signs & symptoms of drug addiction
There is a fine line between drug abuse and drug addiction. Yet once that line is crossed, there is no going back to recreational drug use ever again.
The DSM-5 sets out the symptoms of drug addiction, which professionals use to diagnose the deadly disorder.
Symptoms of drug addiction include:
- Compulsion – compulsively seeking and taking drugs
- Loss of control – regularly losing control of drug-taking – frequent drug abuse
- Preoccupation – continually think about and planning where and when to get and take drugs.
- Continuation despite negative consequences – continuing to take drugs despite suffering adverse consequences socially, mentally, physically and occupationally.
- Progression – building a tolerance to drugs, taking increasing amounts of drugs or stronger types of drugs, or progressing from smoking to injecting.
- Craving – physically and/or mentally craving drugs
- Relapse – drug addiction is a chronic relapsing disease. A person attempting to stop taking drugs will often experience relapse. Relapse is a constant threat to a person who finds recovery
- Excessive time spent using or recovering from drug use – a person addicted to drugs will have their life consumed by drugs, to the point that they will show little interest or invest time in anything else 4
Drug addiction is also often accompanied by drug dependence. Physically, a person suffering from drug dependence will need to take drugs frequently to avoid drug withdrawal symptoms.
Drug withdrawal symptoms are ailments that develop when a person addicted misses a regular dose of drugs or becomes tolerant of the amount of drugs they are taking. Drug withdrawal symptoms are easy to spot; they disappear with the use of more drugs.
A further set of symptoms manifests in addictive behaviours. If you are worried about a family member’s drug use and wonder if they are addicted to drugs, spotting these behavioural symptoms will give you the confidence to challenge them and hopefully get them professional help.
Behavioural characteristics of a drug addict include:
- Secrecy – Hiding the amount of drugs they use
- Dishonesty – Frequently lying to cover up drug use
- Manipulation – Manipulating family, friends and work colleagues to lie for them, give them money and generally enabling their drug use
- Frequent intoxication – a person addicted to drugs will be frequently intoxicated
- Denial – Denying they have a problem with drugs and maintaining they have control (even when it’s obvious to all around them they have lost control) 5
- Frequent mood swings – one minute, they may be very low and anxious; the next, they are energetic and euphoric.
- Committing crime – As addiction progresses, an addict may commit a crime to get money for their drugs.
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy – A drug addict will be so consumed by their drug use that they lose interest in hobbies, sports, work and spending time with family and friends.
- Social withdrawal – addiction causes social withdrawal. A sufferer will gradually disconnect themselves from family and other significant relationships.
- Displaying drug withdrawal symptoms – You may witness a person sweating excessively, shaking, suffering frequent stomach upsets and cold and flu-like symptoms.
Levels of severity in drug addiction
Much like any chronic disease, drug addiction is progressive and presents in levels of severity. The longer it goes untreated, the more severe the consequences tend to be to the sufferer and their family.
Treatment programmes need to be entirely bespoke to account for the severity of the addiction, as presented in each person. For example, a person who is addicted to drugs but still able to hold down a job and function in society will not require as intensive aftercare support as a person who has lost the ability to work, is in the criminal justice system and is homeless. This is always worth bearing in mind when considering an adequate drug treatment programme 6
Why some people become addicted to drugs and others do not
Suffering from drug addiction is as confusing for the person afflicted as it is for those that love and care for them. Sadly, despite great advances in science, there is still a great lack of understanding amongst the general public.
Even in recovery circles, there can still be an air of judgment when a recovered person relapses back into active addiction or when a person cannot get clean and sober. Often, they are told by their peers that they didn’t do enough, didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t want recovery enough. Let’s put this right straight away, drug addiction is not a choice, nor is it the consequence of poor morals, lack of willpower or lack of knowledge.
No one, growing up, thinks to themselves – ‘I know, I want to be a drug addict when I grow up. I want to destroy everything I touch and cause myself indescribable emotional pain by hating myself and hurting all those who love.’
Why is it that two different people raised in the same household, treated in the same way and raised with the same morals can react completely differently when taking drugs?. Why is it that some people can use drugs yet not become addicted? Why is it that some people become addicted to drugs so quickly and easily? What is the common factor that causes drug addiction?
Firstly, it is important to realise that everyone is unique and different when answering these pertinent questions. Therefore their reasons for becoming addicted to drugs can also be very different. There is no single cause or reason for a person becoming addicted to drugs.
What causes drug addiction?
No one knows why exactly one person can become addicted to drugs whilst another does not. However, certain risk factors for developing drug addiction have been identified. The more risk factors a person has, the higher their chances of developing an addiction.
Risk factors for drug addiction include:
Genetics – Genetics have been identified as contributing to around half of a person’s risk for developing an addiction. Mental health illness, gender and ethnicity can also be contributing risk factors relating to a person’s genetics.
Environment – There are many factors relating to a person’s environment that can contribute to them developing an addiction. Environmental factors for drug addiction include Early exposure to drugs in the home, poor parenting from main caregivers, peer pressure, economic status, trauma, physical or sexual abuse and stress.
Teenage drug use – The earlier a person starts to use drugs, the greater the likelihood of developing a drug addiction. This is especially true of teenagers as the human brain continues to develop until the age of 25 years old 7. Abusing drugs during the teenage years can greatly impact a child’s development, socially, mentally and educationally. Drug use during developmental years can also affect how the brain develops, as drug use impacts areas of the brain that control impulse, decision making and judgement. In general, teenagers and young people are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours such as trying drugs and not considering the consequences.8
Drug and alcohol misuse around children can be a leading factor in a child developing an addiction.
The role of dopamine in drug addiction
Dopamine is the brain’s organic reward chemical and plays a crucial role in drug addiction and its development. Dopamine motivates us to engage in behaviour or healthy activities for us; it makes us feel good, happy, satisfied, at ease and content.
Normally, dopamine is released into the brain as a reward for eating, spending time with loved ones, exercise, time spent with nature, achievements and sex. It is the brain’s primary motivator to engage in activities.
When a person takes drugs, the brain is artificially stimulated into releasing abnormally large amounts of dopamine. This is what causes a person to feel euphoria when they take drugs. This influx of dopamine motivates the person to engage in drug-taking once again. Or, they may weigh up the consequences and decide that the euphoric feeling is not worth the possible risks.
In a person that is dopamine deficient and suffers from Dopamine Deficiency Syndrome, which is caused by genetics, trauma or prolonged exposure to stress, they are more likely to engage in drug-taking again 10
Over time and repeated exposure to drugs, the brain’s reward system and circuitry changes cause a natural dopamine deficiency. This causes a person to feel depressed, anxious and unmotivated. These feelings, however, can be instantly relieved by engaging in drug-taking. This is part of what causes a drug-addicted person to continue taking drugs despite mounting adverse consequences. 9,10
Drugs that are most likely to lead to drug addiction
Certain drugs can cause a physical drug dependence to develop – fast! Addictive prescription drugs are well known for leading to drug dependence and drug addiction.
In 2019, Public Health England called for an urgent landmark review of the following types of commonly prescribed addictive drugs after it was revealed that as many as 1 in 4 adults (26% of the adult population) could be addicted to prescription medications. The purpose of the review was to implement safer prescribing guidelines. Sadly, for many, this review came too little, too late. 11
The most addictive prescription drugs include:
- Z list drugs (sedatives including Zimovane and Zopiclone)
Frequent heroin or alcohol use can lead to drug or alcohol dependence. While stimulant drugs such as cocaine incite such a profound euphoric high, users will repeatedly seek to feel the experience.
Cannabis is known to be the most commonly abused drug around the world. Research indicates that up to 30 per cent of cannabis users may suffer from a substance use disorder. 12
Why cant drug addiction be cured?
Drug addiction cannot be cured, much like Diabetes Type 1 or Asthma cannot be cured. The reason for this is that Drug addiction is a physiological disease that causes profound neuroplastic changes in the brain that are long-lasting 1
Thankfully, addiction can be successfully treated, and it can be prevented. Intervening when a person is abusing drugs before they develop a full-blown addiction can be life-saving.
The more a person abuses drugs, the more damage is caused to the brain’s reward circuitry. This influences their natural ability to feel pleasure and think rationally. The further down a person goes in the spiral of addiction, the more they become reliant on a substance to feel anything at all. This is where the brain develops other mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and paranoia.
Drug addiction treatment
We at Detox Plus specialise in drug addiction treatment, following the recommended treatment approaches and principles of effective treatment.
There are three main stages to effectively treating drug addiction, they are:
- Drug Detoxification – A medical detox is provided using approved pharmaceutical medications and high medical and therapeutic supervision and monitoring levels. A Drug detox safely removes the addictive substance from the body so that the body and brain are clear of intoxication and addictive chemical influences.
- Drug Rehabilitation – Using evidence-based treatment methods, the principles of effective addiction treatment are applied through a bespoke intensive drug rehabilitation programme 13
- Addiction Treatment Aftercare – Ongoing supportive measures are applied to ensure the person feels supported on leaving treatment and is assisted back into society, applying what they have learned 13
For some who suffer from drug addiction, residential addiction treatment is necessary to break the addictive cycle.
Our drug rehabs provide a safe space for drug-addicted persons to undergo detox and intensive rehabilitation therapy, addressing the root causes of their addiction and healing them.
Treatment within our drug rehabs is delivered by qualified therapists, counsellors, nurses and doctors. All of whom are committed to helping you or your loved one make a full and lasting recovery from addiction.
Relapse prevention techniques and coping mechanisms are instilled in all of our patients to give them the very best chance in life and recovery,
The Latest Facts on Drug Addiction
Deaths related to poisoning by drug misuse in the UK
- Each year, around two-thirds of all drug poisoning deaths are caused by drug misuse. In 2018, in England and Wales, there were 2,917 deaths relating to drug misuse, out of a total of 4,359 drug poisoning deaths 14
- The rate of drug misuse deaths recorded for England and Wales are two and a half times more for males than females 14
- The National Records of Scotland reported that the number of drug-related deaths recorded for Scotland in 2019 was 6% higher than the previous year. 2019 recorded a total of 1,264 drug-related deaths 15
Drug use statistics for the UK
- In 2018/2019, Cannabis was the most widely used drug in the UK 16
- In 2018/2019, Cocaine was the second most commonly used drug in the UK 16
- In 2018/2019, around 1 in 25 adults in the UK had taken a Class A drug in the past year 16
- In 2018/2019, 8.7% of young adults (aged 16 to 24) had taken a Class A drug in the past year 16
For more information on how our CQC registered drug treatment centres can help you or a loved one recover from drug addiction, call us today for a free and confidential assessment of your individual treatment needs and requirements.
- Neurocircuitry of addiction. Koob GF, Volkow ND. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010 Jan; 35(1):217-38.
- The addicted brain – understanding the neuro physical mechanisms in addictive disorders :https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4365688/
- Understanding drug use and drug facts https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction
- DSM-5 Criteria for substance use disorders, Recommendations and Rationale https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3767415/
- Denial in alcohol and other drug use disorders – A critique of theory. Patricia A. Stoddard DareCleveland State University, LeaAnne DeRigne. Florida Atlantic University, https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=clsowo_facpub
- DSM-5 criteria fro substance use disorders. Recommendations and Rationale. How should severity be presented? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3767415/
- Understanding the teen brain – https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=3051
- Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents (In Brief). What are risk factors and protective factors? Risk factors for drug abuse https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/preventing-drug-use-among-children-adolescents/chapter-1-risk-factors-protective-factors/what-are-risk-factors
- Dopamine hypothesis of drug addiction and its potential therapeutic value https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225760/
- What is dopamine deficiency syndrome? Dopamine transporter deficiency syndrome. (2017). ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/dopamine-transporter-deficiency-syndrome
- Public Health England – Prescribed medicines review summary, updated Dec 2020 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prescribed-medicines-review-report/prescribed-medicines-review-summary
- Prevalence of Marijuana Use Disorders in the United States Between 2001–2002 and 2012–2013. Hasin DS, Saha TD, Kerridge BT, et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(12): 1235-1242. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.1858
- Treatment approaches for drug addiction/ drug facts https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction
- Statistics on Drug misuse England 2019 – https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-drug-misuse/2019/part-2-deaths-related-to-poisoning-by-drug-misuse
- Drug Deaths Statistics for Scotland 2019 https://www.gov.scot/news/drug-related-death-statistics-2019/
Drugs Misuse: Findings from the 2018/19 Crime Survey for England and Wales – drug-misuse-2019-hosb2119.pdf