The United States has a drug and alcohol problem. More than a statement, there are plenty of statistics that support this as fact.
- On average, 30 Americans die every day due to an alcohol-related car accident.
- 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose, daily.
- Near 494,000 Americans over the age of 12 use heroin regularly.
While these numbers are staggering, it gives reason to pause and wonder about the consequences of use. Even for those who have gone through addiction treatment, what are the lingering effects of drug and alcohol abuse? Is there any hope for recovering proper function after brain damage from drugs has occurred?
There is always hope. If you or your loved one were to stop using today, further damage will also stop. With researchers continuing to develop new treatments to find new and improved ways to heal the brain, science fosters brain healing.
Let’s look at how addiction affects the brain and the possibility of recovery.
What Is an Addiction?
Addiction is a disease that requires treatment to manage the symptoms. The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as a complex brain disease in which the individual continues compulsive substance use, regardless of the negative outcomes.
A person with addiction focuses on a certain substance. Ultimately, it reaches a point where the addiction controls their lives and causes distorted thinking, behaviors, and bodily function.
The Ill-Effects of Substance Addiction
The brain, liver, kidneys, skin and other parts of the body become damaged. Changes to the brain make it difficult to enact healthy rational life choices, preventing users the ability to recognize the problem with their drug of choice.
How Addiction Happens
The danger of substance use is that even if a person realizes that addiction may have taken hold, the willful ability to stop is too far gone.
Intoxication describes an intense pleasure, calm, enhancement of the senses, or “high” feeling caused by a drug. As use continues, people develop a tolerance, meaning they need more of the substance to feel the same effect.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that drug use starts for any number of these reasons:
- To feel pleasure or the “high” experience
- To relieve stress and feel better
- To improve performance
- To meet peer pressure
Factors That Make You More Susceptible to Addiction
Risk factors often add to one’s susceptibility for developing the disease. Addiction tends to follow a specific pattern that can include these associated risk factors:
- Genetic predisposition
- Specific characteristics of the brain can increase the likelihood for addiction
- Psychological factors
- Enhanced impulsivity
- Sensation seeking
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders and other psychiatric conditions
- Environmental trauma such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Addiction in those you associate with
- Easy accessibility to an addictive substance
- Early age of initial use of alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs
Having one or more of the above risk factors does not necessarily mean an addictive outcome, but the odds do increase the more risk factors resonate with your life.
Most experts agree that anyone can become addicted, regardless of risk factors. Some drugs, such as nicotine and heroin, have intense addictive qualities, though most people who try drugs or alcohol do not go on to become addicted to them.
Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder
While personal addiction experiences vary, there are some commonalities.
The person has strong cravings and urges to use the substance. Although they may try to decrease or cut down use, the efforts fail.
The substance abuser has trouble completing job tasks, schoolwork, and personal responsibilities. Drug use interferes with social and leisure activities to the point that they become more reclusive, choosing to spend time with others who use. Isolation is also often preferred to socialization.
Poor decision making, impaired judgment, and slow reaction times lead to dangerous activities that would otherwise be avoided if drug or alcohol use wasn’t involved. This can escalate into physical altercations with others and problems with law enforcement.
People with mental illness often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to help alleviate their psychological symptoms. Over time, a substance use disorder develops. When a mental illness is present at the same time as a substance addiction, this is known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. This creates an even greater challenge to achieving recovery.
Parts of the Brain Affected by Alcohol
The brain has many areas that are vulnerable to the damage done from ongoing intoxication due to alcoholism. These include:
- The cerebral cortex and subcortical areas
- The hippocampus, affecting memory and reasoning
- The limbic system , impacting feelings and expression of emotions
- The thalamus, communicating messages within the brain
- The hypothalamus, and its ability to release hormones in response to stress and other stimuli and controls basic behavior and physiologic functions
- The cerebellum, involving posture, motor coordination, and learning simple tasks
The greater the amount and duration of alcohol misuse, the greater the brain damage.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Autopsies and brain scans have shown that alcohol use has a physical impact on the brain. Studies prove that even moderate drinking, defined as one drink a day for women and two for men, damages the brain. The parts of the brain responsible for thinking and learning actually shrink.
Alcohol-Related Brain Atrophy.
The cerebral cortex, white matter and basal forebrain regions atrophy.
The cerebellum and cerebral cortex function decreases and becomes more inefficient, leading to slurred speech and balance problems.
Studies show that the hippocampus shrinks in those who drink excessively for more than 30 years. Participants in the studies who drank four or more drinks per day had a hippocampus six times smaller than non-drinkers.
Thiamine (Vitamin B) deficiency may occur, damaging parts of the hypothalamus. People already susceptible to thiamine deficiency can experience blackouts. In addition, those with thiamine deficiency and alcohol neurotoxicity experience damage to large parts of the brain, including the limbic system. These individuals exhibit short-term memory loss and cognitive impairment.
Frontal Lobe Damage.
The frontal lobe of the brain shows increased vulnerability to alcohol over time. The prefrontal cortex (front of this lobe) affects thinking, emotion, and social interactions and controls planning and regulating behavior. It also stops unnecessary or unwanted behavior.
This area directs goal-oriented behavior, good judgment, and problem-solving abilities, allowing impulse control. The loss of impulse control leads to impulsive and inappropriate behavior. Excessive drinking often accompanies this behavior.
Damage of the Right Hemisphere.
The right side of the brain allows you to interact with the world and know where you are in relation to physical space. It also affects how you perceive art, non-verbal communication, emotion, and music.
People who engage in alcohol abuse often show flat emotions or may seem emotionally bankrupt. They have trouble understanding non-verbal communication and facial expressions that indicate emotion.
Damage of Neurotransmitter Systems.
Alcohol changes the function of neurotransmitters, which are the messengers of the brain. This causes slurred speech, blurry vision, and slower reaction times.
Changes in proper functionality of neurotransmitters can cause seizures, sedation, depression, agitation, and other mood and behavior disorders. People may also experience blackouts.
Neurotransmitters release hormones in response to alcohol intake that promote alcohol addiction. Hormone interactions from alcohol include:
- Serotonin and endorphins contribute to the “high” feeling and craving for alcohol
- Dopamine provides a feeling of motivation and rewarding effect
The longer alcohol use continues, the more permanent these brain changes become, further compromising brain health. Long term exposure increases the risk of seizures, stroke, brain cancer, and dementia.
How Do Drugs Rewire the Brain?
Drug use changes the way the brain’s circuitry works. The brain has receptors that receive messages that are sent to the sensory nerves. Information also travels through tiny junctions called synapses.
All addictive drugs impact the dopamine pathway in the brain, which delivers a sensation of extreme pleasure. Drugs produce greater pleasure rewards than natural rewards like food or social interaction.
The brain compensates for the influx of synthetic dopamine by decreasing the number of natural dopamine receptors at the synapse. The neurons increase the dopamine transporters that take dopamine away from the synapse.
Now the brain isn’t as responsive to the drug, setting up drug tolerance. In order to experience the same sensory effect, compared to initial use, more of the drug is needed. As the brain continues to encounter this, it continues to adapt. Other parts of the brain become involved.
If left untreated, areas of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, learning and memory change, ultimately hard-wiring the brain to a state of drug addiction.
Can Brain Damage Caused by Substance Addiction Improve?
The National Institute of Health (NIH) reported that one year of alcohol abstinence resulted in a partial reversal of structural changes. Within weeks of stopping alcohol consumption, the hippocampus showed significant improvement in size.
The most brain improvement occurs in the first year of abstinence. Some reports show ongoing brain improvement with five to seven years of complete abstinence. Although all functions can’t return, as soon as abstinence begins, further brain damage is prevented.
Brain damage caused by ongoing drug abuse will differ, depending on the substance used, a person’s length and severity of use, as well as their current state of health when abstinence starts. When drug intake stops, the brain does not instantly return to normal.
Some drugs kill neurons, which can’t regrow. Other connections between neurons may repair over months without the drug, while some changes in the brain may last for years.
Impact, Based on Drug Type, on the Brain
Cocaine and methamphetamine.
These drugs act as stimulants and affect dopamine and its receptors in the brain. Over time, they kill these receptor cells.
This result is a condition called anhedonia, a decreased or lack of ability to feel pleasure if not using the drug. Since the cells died, anhedonia can last long after stopping the drug. This can result in depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-destructive behavior. Yet, with continued abstinence, the receptors can repair and regain some function.
Use of hallucinogens may result in a condition called hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. This can manifest as flashbacks, echoes, or visual distortion.
The cause is unknown and the condition can persist for many years after stopping the use of hallucinogens.
Depressants like opioids can decrease breathing and lower oxygen level. If the oxygen level remains significantly low for a period of time, damage can occur to the brain and other parts of the body, resulting in coma and brain death.
This can occur suddenly, as with an overdose or over years of abuse, causing a slow brain cell death.
Permanent or Temporary Damage.
It may be possible to reverse some brain damage by infusing nutrients into the body that have been lacking. If caught in the early stages, some brain damage can reverse over time.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse continues to make advances in treatment, and technology may improve the chances in recovering lost brain function once substance abuse stops. The treatments hope to reduce the cravings that contribute to relapse and further damage.
What Types of Treatment Are Available to Help Addiction?
Deciding to start treatment for a substance addiction is a big step. There are many different types of programs available.
Partial hospitalization programs. This type of program involves 40 hours of clinical treatment every week. Treatment plans strive to meet each individual’s needs.
The clients spend their days in treatment. During evenings and nights, they may stay at home or a sober living facility.
Intensive outpatient program. This program offers between 9 and 21 hours of treatment each week. The length of the treatment differs according to each client’s needs.
Outpatient treatment. Clients take part in 1 to 3 hours of treatment per week. This program often involves the final stage of recovery care. Individuals spend more of their time occupied with their daily activities.
Long term care. These programs often involve inpatient care lasting from 30 to 120 days depending on the client’s needs. Following inpatient care, clients enter transition programs allowing them to gradually return to their daily life with recovery support.
Support programs. The client can continue to take part in these programs as long as needed. Known as aftercare, they often include weekly meetings, a 24-hour helpline, social events, and more.
Is It Time to Get Help for Brain Damage from Drugs?
When you or a loved one wishes to begin the road to recovery, our specialists have treatment programs ready. Alcohol and substance abuse and its affects are unique to each person, so one treatment program does not fit all.
The industry-leading staff at Continuum Recovery Center starts each person’s individualized program by discussing specific treatment goals, health-related problems aside from the addiction, and expectations. Because everyone does not need the same level of care, we offer several personalized options that provide the comprehensive and integrated approach needed to reset physical, mental and spiritual health.
Trauma resolution program. This program focuses on recovery from previous traumatic events. This may be the significant underlying cause for addiction. Addressing and learning more effective coping strategies can enhance addiction recovery.
Family wellness program. While addiction treatment focuses on the individual, the disease impacts the entire family. The goal is to give family members information to understand the addiction process and how to provide their loved one with the support that promotes ongoing sobriety. Dysfunctional family dynamics often contribute to addictive behavior and learning healthier ways to interact helps remove enabling tendencies and reduce the risk for relapse.
The Bridge Device opioid detox program. Often the most arduous part of addiction recovery, drug detox, can be physically debilitating. So much so, that a person would rather go back to using opioids than completing this part of the program. In fact, most drug relapse incidences happen during detox. But with the FDA-cleared Bridge Device, people can experience (within 30 minutes of application) a gentler, shorter time in opioid detox without the pain and discomfort of withdrawal symptoms. In as little as two to five days, individuals complete opioid detox and move on to other aspects of treatment and recovery faster.