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Addiction and the Brain

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Addiction and the Brain

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is a medical disorder that affects the brain and changes behavior.

NIDA is a center within the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that focuses on addiction. There are separate institutes within the NIH that focus on major health conditions like cancer, heart disease and infectious diseases. The researchers and scientists at NIDA advance the science of how to prevent and treat substance use disorders through clinical research and education.

In the early 1990s, scientists began to understand how repeated substance use affects the brain. Brain scans showed that as is the case with other diseases, SUD affects tissue function. For a SUD, two main parts of the brain are affected: the limbic system and the cortex.

Science also shows that the brain can recover from a substance use disorder. It takes time, treatment and abstinence. Brain scans show the survival circuit in a healthy brain compared to the brain of someone with a methamphetamine use disorder after one month of abstinence, and then 14 months of abstinence.[1] The activity in the survival circuit starts to regain normal levels the longer a person is in recovery and returns to its previous state.

Why do people keep using drugs?

Many people start using substances to feel good, to feel better, to do better, or out of curiosity. However, as a SUD develops and progresses, it affects brain function, and a person’s ability to control their use diminishes. What was once a decision to use turns into a compulsion. This is why engaging with treatment as soon as possible is so important. “This impairment in self-control is the hallmark of addiction” according to NIDA.[1]

While the initial decision to use alcohol or drugs is voluntary, no one chooses to become addicted.

1) National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020) Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from



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