What Part of the Brain Controls Addiction

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Last Edited: March 12, 2020


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All of the information on this page has been reviewed and certified by an addiction professional.

You’ve likely already learned that addiction is a disease. You may realize that your loved one can’t just quit using drugs or alcohol no matter the outcome. What you may not understand is the part of the brain controls addiction.

We’re going to take a look at how the brain controls addiction and what causes people to continue using regardless of consequences. Keep reading for a better understanding the disease.

Addiction: A Choice or a Disease?

Many people are misinformed about the disease of addiction. They commonly believe that addiction is a choice and that addicts simply choose this lifestyle.

Addiction does start with a choice; the choice to try a drug or a drink. However, after a certain period of time – or even after the first use – that “choice” is no longer there. Losing the choice to use or not use is never the intended outcome. No one wakes up thinking to themselves, “I’m going to become an addict.”

The difference between someone who is or isn’t an addict comes down to the loss of choice. Someone who continues to choose to use a drug, but stops after facing consequences likely doesn’t have this disease. On the other hand, someone who continues using regardless of the outcome likely has a substance abuse problem.

Losing the choice to use or drink isn’t because of a lack of willpower or a lesser moral compass. It is actually controlled by the brain.

So, What Part of the Brain Controls Addiction?

The first time someone tries a substance and enjoys it, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released. Dopamine creates a pleasurable sensation, usually associated with the inebriation.

From there, someone who is prone to addiction may go from enjoying the substance to wanting it regularly. Soon, this desire turns into a need in order to feel any sense of pleasure. This is called psychological dependence.

As far as the physical part of the brain is concerned, the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory) and the amygdala (which is responsible for learning) have a major role. The hippocampus basically helps remind the user of the rush of pleasure. The amygdala helps the brain learn that the substance is the reason behind the satisfaction.

Dopamine can be released in several ways. That’s part of the reason that substances aren’t the only possible addictions. Behavioral addictions, such as viewing pornography, gambling, or eating too much can also be responsible for the brain’s learned response and sense of pleasure.

You should also note that substance abuse and addiction can lead to physical dependence. Physical dependence on a drug causes the user to experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop using.

Between the psychological and physical dependence, an addict will often spiral out of control, and act out of character to obtain their drug of choice.

Relearning Pleasure

The cycle of releasing dopamine and feeling intense pleasure won’t last forever. As addiction progresses, more of the substance or behavior is required to feel the same “rush” as before. This is usually when you begin to notice that the addiction is taking over, as tolerance builds.

In order to break the cycle of addiction, the addict will have to realize their problem. Unfortunately, this realization often comes after a major consequence. These consequences may include losing custody of children, getting fired, or legal trouble. Other times, the realization may come from a family intervention.

When the addict accepts that they need help to break their addiction, they may choose to attend rehab or support groups. Both options will help the addict learn to live life without abusing substances. More importantly, they will reteach them the ability to feel pleasure naturally.

At this point, the part of the brain that controls addiction learns that the substance or behavior isn’t needed to feel pleasure.

If you happen to love an addict, they will greatly appreciate you taking the time to learn about their disease. Should your loved one still be actively using, understanding what part of the brain controls addiction can give you some peace.