5 Brain Structures Affected by Substance Addiction

brain structures affected by substance abuse

A fascinating, complex mass of gray matter (mostly neurons) and white matter (promotes nerve signaling) that operates under principles of electrochemistry and quantum physics, the human brain is divided into three basic regions that control all physiological functions necessary for life:

  • Brain stem – responsible for regulating breathing, heart rate, consciousness, appetite and the sleep cycle.
  • Cerebral cortex – controls “executive” thinking processes such as making decisions, solving problems, perceptual awareness, language and memory.
  • Limbic system – an older part of the brain that originally evolved in pre-primate mammals millions of years ago3, the limbic system contains the brain’s reward circuitry and connects several brain structures controlling our ability to experience physical and emotional pleasure. The limbic system plays a crucial role in the development of an addiction because of its proximity the brain’s reward center.

Addiction and the Brain: A Destructive Relationship

Drug and alcohol addiction severely disrupts the precise interplay among the thousands of ongoing bioelectrochemical processes that allows the brain to function normally. For example:

Changing Brain Structure

substance abuse can cause changing of the brain structureStructural MRI imaging studies have shown that substance abuse can shrink or enlarge some brain structures2. Stimulants tend to enlarge the basal ganglia (learning, cognition, emotion) and shrink the hippocampus (memory storage) while opioid abuse diminishes functioning of the amygdala (memory, emotional reactions) and ultimately shrinks the size of this important brain structure4.

Decrease in Size of Prefrontal and Frontal Lobes

Prefrontal and frontal lobes decrease in size when subjected to chronic substance abuse as rapid destruction of neurons promotes tissue atrophy and impaired executive functioning5,6.

Reducing of Signaling and Neuronal Activity

Stimulant abuse (cocaine, methamphetamine) reduces signaling and neuronal activity in the OFC (orbitofrontal cortex), a brain region vital to the ability for a person to make strategic, rational decisions instead of impulsive, irrational decisions.Serious brain injuries resulting from vehicle or sports accidents that damage the OFC cause the same problems with good decision-making and impulse control seen in drug addicts.

Weakening of Arterial Walls

Arterial blood vessels are responsible for supplying the brain with sufficient amounts of blood. When arterial walls are weakened by a cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin addiction, this can precipitate formation of an aneurysm, a bulging, fragile area on the arterial wall.

Aneurysms can balloon, break and bleed into the brain, causing stroke, seizures or coma unless the drug addict takes control of his addiction and gets help from a drug rehab center.

Temporal Lobe Damage

temporal lobe damage caused by alcohol abuseSubstance addiction (especially alcohol) can cause temporal lobe damage by initiating atrophy and shrinkage of the lobe. Because the temporal lobe is responsible for organizing sensory input, speech production, auditory perception and memory formation, substance abusers will suffer noticeable deficits in these areas.

Depending on the severity of their addiction, temporal lobe damage, such as long-term memory impairment and disturbances in language comprehension, may be irreversible7.

Rehabilitation and Recovery Help is Available Right Now

Substance abuse treatment centers provide the kind of effective, compassionate services needed by people seeking a way out of their addiction. If you or a loved one is suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction, don’t wait until the addiction has caused brain damage that cannot be reversed.

Find a recovery center today that offers inpatient or outpatient services as well as individual/group therapy, crisis intervention, health and wellness programs and psychological help for those presenting a dual diagnosis of addiction and mental illness.

  1. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851068/
  3. http://people.psych.cornell.edu/~blf2/pdfs/RLR,BBE07.pdf
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2912691/
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2730661/
  6. http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v18/n4/full/1395124a.html
  7. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/125-133.htm

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