How Does Drug Use Change the Brain?

When a person struggles with addiction, their brain is rewired to use drugs in spite of consequences. While physical symptoms go away, situations or emotions related to past substance abuse trigger cravings down the road. Recovery is not possible in this case. But people in recovery must realize treatment is always ongoing and lifelong. The struggle continues, especially to understand how the brain and body are impacted.

Developing Addiction

The human brain is complex and controls so many functions in a person’s body. The brain controls motor skills, heart, and breathing rates, along with behavior and decision-making skills. This is the part of the brain responsible for addiction. The name for this is the limbic system. Also known as the ‘brain reward system,’ it is responsible for producing feelings of pleasure. When a person takes addictive substances, the limbic system releases chemicals that make the person feel good. The involuntary need to use a substance, regardless of harm, is due to actual changes that occurred in the brain reward system. Feeding this addiction becomes priority and above all else in a person’s life.

Reward Pathways

The reward pathways shift in the brain. Frequent activation of this system with drugs can lead to addiction, which further stimulates this reward system, causing a desire for more of the same effect. The brain’s reward system will be activated and do what naturally feels good to adapt and survive. Addictive substances hijack this system, cause feelings of pleasure and may cause more harm than good. Addictive substances have a greater impact on the brain’s reward system than anything.


Dopamine plays an important role in the reward system. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that sends signals to the limbic system, when introduced into the system, drugs either mimic dopamine or cause an overproduction of it in the brain. The normal actions that active the brain reward system don’t reprogram the brain for addiction because they produce normal levels of dopamine. Substances release up to 10 times more dopamine than natural reward behaviors. Substance use floods neuroreceptors with dopamine. This causes the ‘high’ associated with using drugs. After continued use, the human brain cannot produce normal levels of dopamine. Drugs take the system hostage. The result is feeling cravings for the drug. Finding help for this is essential so that a person can return to living a normal life, as much as is possible. Rehab and recovery are key pathways to supporting long term healing from addiction.

The Last Resort provides a safe, supportive environment for men in a retreat-like setting. Nature is an important component of recovery and healing. We strive to provide a place of enrichment that cultivates the inner as well as the outer journey of recovery. However you find your way to the Last Resort, we endeavor to provide a haven where you can journey through recovery feeling like your life and story have meaning and a purpose. Call us to find out more: 512-750-6750.