According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 19 million people in the United States had a substance use disorder in 2019. In fact, addiction is more common than most people think. Even though most people know that addiction exists, the average person probably doesn’t realize that almost 1 out of every 5 Americans has an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
When first consumed, addictive substances can make individuals feel energized and confident, euphoric and relaxed, or pain-free. But those effects are temporary, prompting users to compulsively consume the substances again and again. Unfortunately, prolonged use of drugs and alcohol can increase an individual’s risk of cancer, heart disease, infections, stroke, heart attacks, coma, respiratory problems, and neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Luckily, addiction is a treatable condition and individuals can recover. Thanks to news advancements in the field of addiction research, today’s addiction treatment programs have become more holistic, incorporate evidence-based brain science, and teach lifestyle practices that help reduce the risk of relapse.
What We Currently Know About Addiction And The Brain
Research has allowed scientists and behavioral health experts to understand much about the relationship between addiction and the brain. Doctors, therapists, counselors, and recovery professionals know that addiction is a complex brain condition defined by the continued consumption of addictive substances despite harmful consequences. People living with addiction challenges become so consumed by their substance of choice that drugs or alcohol seemingly control their lives. This happens because of the way addictive substances interact with the brain.
Simply put, drugs and alcohol interfere with the brain’s reward system. When consumed, addictive substances travel to areas of the brain that signal reward and generate pleasure. In response, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter, or brain messenger, commonly known as the “feel good chemical.”
Addictive substances like drugs and alcohol flood the brain with dopamine. Initially, this rush of the feel good chemical may create a sense of pleasure. But dopamine also plays an important role in learning and memory. Over time, this release of dopamine teaches the brain to rely on the substance for pleasure, which, in turn, hijacks the brain’s reward system.
In addition to that, dopamine interacts with glutamate, another neurotransmitter, which links activities needed for human survival with pleasure and reward. In short, dopamine and glutamate trick the brain into thinking the pleasure-evoking substance is needed for survival. That misinformation triggers the compulsive consumption associated with addiction.
The brain is neuroplastic, or capable of changing, as a result of habitual behavior. Because of neuroplasticity, drugs, alcohol, and addiction can:
- Change the structure of the brain
- Negatively impact the way the brain functions
- Alter the way neurons in the brain communicate
- Decrease volume in brain areas that regulate planning, logical thinking, problem solving, and self-control.
Research has also helped scientists better understand the signs and symptoms of addiction. Even though each person can have a different experience with addiction, substance use disorders typically include a similar cluster of signs and symptoms. Signs, which are observed by others, can be physical, behavioral, or emotional. Symptoms, which are experienced by individuals grappling with addiction, typically fall into four categories: impaired control, social problems, risky behavior, and drug effects.
Signs of Addiction
Common signs of addiction include:
- Physical indicators, such as red eyes, runny nose, pale skin, an undernourished body, unexplained weight loss or gain, unusual body odor, slurred speech, poor hygiene, a bleeding nose, consistent coughing, random scars, burns, rashes, or scabs, shortness of breath, shaking hands and feet, and constant nausea or vomiting.
- Behavioral manifestations, such as missing work or school, lying, constant deception or manipulation, relationship/marital problems, disrupted sleep patterns, desire for isolation, keeping secrets, financial problems, neglecting responsibilities, missing important engagements, and poor performance at work or school. You might also notice changes in social groups, new and unusual friends, odd phone calls, and repeated unexplained outings.
- Emotional clues, such as irritability, defensiveness, inability to deal with stress, irrational responses, sudden and unexplained mood changes, denial, rationalizing or making excuses for their behavior, blaming others, and changing the subject to avoid discussing drugs or alcohol.
Symptoms of Addiction
Some of the more common symptoms of addiction include:
- Impaired control such as strong cravings and urges to use a substance or failed attempts to cut down or control the consumption of drugs or alcohol.
- Social challenges such failure to complete work tasks, school assignments, or projects at home because of substance use. Usually, these problems cause strained personal relationships as well.
- High-risk behaviors such as using drugs or alcohol while driving and continuing to use drugs and alcohol despite known health problems caused by substance use.
- Displayed drug effects such as a need for larger amounts of the substance to get the same effect (tolerance), changes in energy levels, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms, which vary depending on the substance.
Luckily, addiction can be treated. Let’s take a look at what the latest research tells us about breaking an addiction.
What Recent Research Tells Us About Addiction Recovery
At one point, scientists believed that pleasure was the main reason people used addictive substances. However, newer research suggests that addiction is more complicated. In addition to regulating and signaling pleasure, the reward circuit includes areas of the brain involved with motivation and memory. This means that addictive substances can stimulate parts of the brain that help us memorize patterns of behavior and motivate our present and future actions.
Prolonged exposure to addictive substances can cause nerve cells in the part of the brain responsible for planning and executing tasks to communicate in a way that associates liking something with wanting it. Instead of merely ‘enjoying’ the effects of drugs and alcohol, addictive substances trick the brain into wanting these harmful substances, motivating users to continue to use drugs and alcohol despite the consequences. The brain memorizes the pattern of behavior and changes (due to neuroplasticity) in order to adapt to this newly learned habit.
In short, recent research suggests that addiction may be the result of deep learning. Therefore, breaking an addiction should include brain science techniques and lifestyle practices that can help the brain ‘unlearn’ harmful patterns of behavior.
Technology Can Help Lessen The Brain’s Craving For Addictive Substances
Despite a wide range of medical therapies and rehabilitation support, addiction continues to remain a public health concern in the United States. In addition to a global pandemic, we’re in the middle of a nationwide opioid epidemic and overdose deaths continue to rise. High levels of stress and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an increased reliance on drugs and alcohol. New therapies are needed to help treat addiction. Luckily, new research shows that technology like deep brain stimulation (DBS) may be an effective way to help reverse the brain’s reliance on addictive substances
What is Deep Brain Stimulation?
Deep brain stimulation is a neurosurgical procedure that works to regulate abnormal impulses in the brain. Traditionally, DBS requires the surgical insertion of electrodes into the brain to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), epilepsy, and dystonia. But new studies on mice have shown that a type of non-invasive deep brain stimulation may be able to help treat addiction challenges, though research is in its early phase.
How Can Brain Stimulation Help Treat Addiction?
Temporal interference (TI) is a non-invasive deep brain stimulation technique. Instead of using literal electrodes, TI uses two beams of high electrical frequency to alter the activity of neurons in the brain. Deep brain stimulation can help treat addiction by changing the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, the “feel good chemical,” motivates individuals to continually seek out seemingly pleasurable substances like drugs and alcohol. By diminishing the amount of dopamine in the brain, temporal interference can help curb cravings caused by irregular levels of dopamine.
What Does the Research Suggest?
Scientists believe DBS and TI can help treat addiction by applying high-frequency stimulation to the following brain areas:
- The nucleus accumbens, which plays a central role in the brain’s reward circuitry, which may help reduce impulsive behavior
- Subthalamic nucleus (STN), a section of the brain which helps regulate impulse control
- Hippocampus, which plays an important role in what individuals memorize and learn
Research seems to show promising results. In recent animal studies, deep brain stimulation:
- Prevented rats from increasing their dose of self-administered heroin.
- Decreased rats’ motivation to obtain and consume heroin.
By inhibiting heroin use and decreasing the motivation to consume the substance, experts believe that deep brain stimulation could one day help diminish individuals’ desire for addictive substances, while subsequently increasing their self-control.
Deep brain stimulation and temporal interference may also help break the cycle of opioid addiction. According to an article published in Business Insider, deep brain stimulation is currently being used on an experimental basis to help a man who has been addicted to opioids for 18 years find sobriety.
Even though current animal studies have shown largely promising results, research is still ongoing. Further research is needed to see how well DBS and TI work during substance withdrawal and with different addictive substances.
Neurofeedback Can Help Individuals Learn Healthier Patterns of Behavior
Neurofeedback is another brain science technique gaining traction as an effective treatment for addiction recovery. This non-drug, reward-based training system, can help individuals overcome addiction by helping the brain ‘re-learn’ self-regulation.
What Is Neurofeedback?
Also referred to as EEG biofeedback or Neurotherapy, neurofeedback is a specialized treatment that uses advanced computer technology to “balance” the brain and improve the way your mind functions. Essentially, neurofeedback helps heal the brain from addictive, compulsive habits by teaching the mind to ‘learn’ new habits through non-invasive brain training exercises.
How Does Neurofeedback Work?
Neurofeedback works by using the brain’s ability to learn new things to retrain the mind. EEG sensors, typically placed on an individual’s forehead, monitor brainwaves as individuals play a game, listen to music, or watch a video. The stimulating game, music, or video operates smoothly when brainwaves function within an optimal range. When the brainwave activity reaches a non-optimal level, however, individuals receive negative feedback. Usually, the movie or game pauses, or the music stops playing. This feedback tells the brain that something is out of balance, causing the brain to “figure out” how to return to the stimulating entertainment. In time, the brain adapts to this feedback and learns self control, or how to function within an optimal range regardless of internal or external stimuli.
How Does Neurofeedback Help Addiction Recovery?
Scientists believe neurofeedback can help individuals break the cycle of addiction by training the brain to:
- Relearn impulse control
- Restore emotional regulation
- Relax and better manage stress
- Regain control of body movements
- Strengthen individuals’ ability to abstain from drugs and alcohol
Neurofeedback also helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression which may trigger cravings for drugs or alcohol.
What Does The Research Suggest?
Because neurofeedback uses individuals’ specific brainwaves, this type of evidence-based brain science can help produce treatment plans unique to each individual’s recovery needs. Neurofeedback can also help recovery experts further understand how certain drugs affect specific areas of the brain. Here’s what some of the latest research reveals about neurofeedback and addiction:
- According to a study published in the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback journal, neurofeedback training may be more effective than pharmacotherapy alone in treating substance use and in promoting mental health.
- Another study suggests that neurofeedback could be a highly-effective way to help people who are developing alcohol problems before the consumption escalates into dependent drinking or alcoholism.
- According to a UCLA study, biofeedback treatment combined with a 12-step program could help individuals recovering from addiction better accept change and stabilize the brain, reducing the risk of relapse.
- A 2019 study even suggests that automated neurofeedback brain-training systems have demonstrated such efficacy and safety that they should and could be explored as a primary behavioral intervention and form of treatment for addiction recovery.
Contingency Management May Be Just As Effective as Behavioral Therapy
Contingency management is largely based on the idea that when people receive rewards for positive behavior, they are likely to repeat that behavior again. Although controversial, contingency management is an evidence-based technique used to modify behavior by motivating individuals to live without addictive substances.
What is Contingency Management?
Contingency management is a treatment method that rewards individuals for positive behavior such as abstinence. “Contingency” means that a reward is contingent, or based on, performing a desired act. “Management” is the art, science, or practices of arranging these rewards to shape or modify behavior. When combined together, the two concepts help rewire the brain which is especially helpful for individuals looking to overcome addiction challenges.
Contingency Management and Addiction
Also called motivational incentives, contingency management provides recovering addicts tangible rewards or monetary prizes in exchange for drug-free urine samples or alcohol-free tests. Participants can also receive incentive prizes after they attend a training, class, or job interview. Instead of relying on drugs and alcohol for pleasure and reward, contingency management provides individuals alternative, healthier rewards while individuals develop a capacity to resist drug and alcohol use. Many treatment programs prefer using behavioral therapy rather than contingency management in order to establish long-term change within their clients, but research continues into contingency programs.
What Makes Contingency Management Effective?
Clinical trials have shown that contingency management is especially beneficial for individuals recovering from alcohol, cocaine, opioid, marijuana, and stimulant addiction. This is because material rewards evoke pleasure and stimulate a healthier, alternative, and natural “high.” But this technique is also effective because contingency management:
- Encourages the continuation of treatment
- Helps prevent relapse
- Rewires the brain’s reward circuitry
What Does the Research Reveal?
Almost all the research conducted on contingency management before 2005 proved that contingency management is an effective technique in addition to standard addiction treatment. Here’s what recent research on contingency management reveals:
- A 2018 meta-analysis of 50 different clinical studies for cocaine and amphetamine addiction found that combining contingency management with a community reinforcement approach was effective.
- A 2019 study based in South Africa found that contingency management may be a useful component to boost methamphetamine abstinence.
- Another study revealed that home-based contingency management for marijuana use disorder increased rates of abstinence among adolescent users during treatment.
Helping Overcome Drug-Associated Memories May Help Reduce Future Cravings
Now that scientists realize the impact that addiction has on habit-forming areas of the brain, they’ve started studying the influence of memories on drug cravings. If drug cravings arise in part from memories associated with drug use, treating and helping individuals overcome these memories may help reduce future cravings and prevent relapse.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge continue to study the correlation between memories, cravings, and relapse. Ultimately, the goal is to selectively disrupt the formation of harmful memories which can help break the cycle of addiction.
Some of the more common ways recovery centers can help disrupt the impact of drug-associated memories include:
- Mindfulness breathing
- Mantra-based meditation
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
Mindfulness Meditation Can Help Rewire the Brain
Scientists have long studied the benefits of meditation. However, some of the latest research on meditation shows that the practice can actually help rewire brains negatively impacted by addiction.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present. When individuals are mindful, they are actively aware of where they are and what they’re doing. Mindful individuals are not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around them. The ultimate goal of mindfulness is to “wake up” the mind’s mental, emotional, and physical processes.
Meditation, simply put, is exploring inwardly. Meditation isn’t a fixed destination. Instead, meditation is the process of venturing into the mind via the exploration of the sensations we feel and the thoughts we think. Mindfulness meditation is the process of exploring the mind in order to become fully present.
Mindfulness and Addiction Recovery
Mindfulness meditation aids the recovery process in many ways. Historical research has revealed that mindfulness helps break the cycle of addiction by:
- Helping people feel better by slowing down
- Reducing stress and anxiety
- Easing symptoms of depression
- Quieting the mental chatter that can lead to substance use
- Helping you understand your reaction to stimuli
Newer research suggests that mindfulness meditation can help break the cycle of addiction by rewiring and changing the physical structure of brains changed by addiction.
What Does the Research Suggest?
There’s a growing amount of research that shows that training the brain to be mindful also changes the physical structure of the brain. According to research, new data, and various studies, meditation can:
- Increase grey matter which increases cognitive functioning and helps the brain function better
- Shrink the amygdala, which helps improve emotional regulation
- Enlarge the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational decision-making
- Thicken the hippocampus, which helps individuals memorize and learn new patterns of behavior
Perhaps more than anything, the latest research about addiction tells us that breaking an addiction requires holistic treatment. Detoxification and therapy are quite effective, but obtaining and maintaining long-term recovery requires holistic treatment customized to meet individuals’; specific needs. As such, breaking an addiction incorporates a blend of activities that work together to restore the brain to its optimal state of healthy functioning.
These activities can include:
- Evidence-based brain science
- Cognitive behavioral therapies such as dialectical behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization reprocessing, and rational emotive behavioral therapy
- Trauma therapy and the healing of disturbing memories
- Programs to treat mental health challenges such as dual diagnosis treatment
- Community and peer support groups such as 12-step programs
- Brain retraining activities and therapies
- Proper balanced nutrition such as the “brain diet” and “dopamine diet”
- Healthy coping skills such as exercising, journaling, positive self-talk, writing, and drawing
- Aftercare support that includes vocational, housing, and sober living support
- Alternative lifestyle practices that promote, support, and encourage recovery like acupuncture, chiropractic services, yoga, mindfulness, and meditation
That’s what we offer here at Soba Recovery — comprehensive treatment plans that incorporate all aspects of addiction recovery. Our unique recovery programs combine a wide range of techniques, therapies, and lifestyle practices that can help individuals fully recover from the effects of addiction. Contact us today if you or a loved one are working to break free of the cycle of addiction.