addiction brain changes

If you use drugs and continue to hold a steady job and maintain relationships with friends and family, your drug use may seem very manageable. It’s natural to feel like you are in control.

After all, you’re making the decision to use drugs, and you could decide at any time not to use them. Unfortunately, your brain chemistry tells a different story.

Addiction a Disease

Addiction is a complex disease and its effects on your body are serious. This is why willpower alone is not enough to stop using drugs. Addiction involves multiple factors, including genetics, biology, and environmental pressures.

Just as no single factor determines whether someone will become addicted to drugs or alcohol, there is no single “quick fix” solution for recovery. The most effective addiction treatment programs are those that address both the physiological impact of drug use on the body, as well as providing the emotional and behavioral support you may need to successfully embrace a new, sober life. (1)

How Drug Use Changes the Brain Over Time

Every time you use drugs, you are changing your brain. These changes may seem imperceptible at first, but over time, drug use can affect your behavior, your interests and even what makes you happy. This is because drug use changes your brain’s chemistry.

Whenever you use drugs, you are directly affecting the parts of the brain that are associated with pleasure and motivation, especially the neurotransmitter dopamine. (2) The result: the activities you once enjoyed, like spending time with a loved one, playing a favorite sport or game, or even indulging in your favorite food are no longer as enjoyable as they once were.

Nothing can compare to the feelings of pleasure and excitement you experience when you are using drugs.


So, why do drugs change how your brain responds to daily activities? The answer can be found in the brain chemical known as dopamine. Dopamine is involved in many different behaviors, including movement, motivation, reward, and addiction.

Nearly every addictive substance increases dopamine levels in the pleasure and motivation pathways in the brain. For example, after using cocaine, the connections between neurons in the nuclear accumbens – part of the brain’s reward pathway – increase in number, size and strength. Smoking meth causes cells to dump increased quantities of dopamine into the brain’s reward pathways, leading to an intense, emotional surge. (4)


Addiction hijacks your brain, re-wiring not only your brain’s reward pathways, but also the pathways that are responsible for decision-making, memory, learning, and judgment. (3) These changes can make certain behaviors “hard-wired” into the brain, including the desire to use drugs.

Even if you feel like you are still in control of your life and can quit at any time, your brain’ chemistry tells a different story. Drug use can become habitual without you even realizing it.

How Addiction Treatment Helps

Drugs have a long-lasting impact on the brain. Even after you stop using drugs, these changes remain, making it difficult to stay drug-free through willpower alone. Have you ever told yourself you would go for one day, five days, or two weeks without using drugs but have been unable to stay sober for said period of time?

Because the drugs have re-wired your brain’s reward pathways, you cannot rely on willpower alone to stay sober.

Our programs at Alternatives in Treatment provide individuals the support and resources they need to overcome these intense cravings and successfully recover.


  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Addiction Science: From Molecules to Managed Care”, The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction, 2008,
  3. University of Utah health Sciences, “Drug Use Changes the Brain Over Time”, Genetics Science Learning Center, 2015
  4. University of Utah health Sciences, “Drug Use Changes the Brain Over Time”, Genetics Science Learning Center, 2015