Why Is Addiction Considered A Chronic Relapsing Brain Disease

Discussions around whether or not addiction is a chronic disease have been circling throughout society for years. Many people previously argued that addiction is more of a “choice” rather than a chronic illness. We now know this is completely false, and there is lots of evidence to back it up. Scientists have confirmed that not only is addiction a disease, but that addiction is specifically a chronic and relapsing disease of the brain. Understanding how addiction comes to be, and the brain’s role in its formation can help us understand addiction and move past the stigma.

Why Addiction Is Not A Choice

Addiction is not something you choose, because if it was, no one would be an addict. People drink, use addictive substances, and are prescribed addictive painkillers every single day. Does everyone become an addict? Absolutely not. This alone suggests that certain individuals have different traits that make them more likely to develop the disease. 

The first time someone uses an addictive substance might be a choice, but those with addiction will experience changes to their brain after their first initial use that will drive them to crave more of the substance. Over time, the cravings get stronger and individual willpower gives out. At this point, it is no longer a choice. Like other chronic diseases, addiction will persist regardless of willpower or desire to stop it. 

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D. has confirmed that research proves addiction to be a chronic and relapsing brain disease. In fact, he advocates strongly for new approaches to addiction prevention and treatment that focus more specifically on brain function. Scientists have noted that once these changes in the brain occur, they are likely going to be lifelong. 

Meaning, if you recover from addiction, you cannot attempt to use a substance again and not have the same outcome. The addiction signals in your brain will immediately fire, and the addiction cycle will begin again. This is why addiction needs to be understood as a chronic relapsing brain disease, and not a choice. 

The Brain’s Role In Addiction

Research has consistently proven that there are a lot of areas in the brain that affect and contribute to the chronic relapsing disease of addiction.  Every addictive substance, like alcohol or opioids, will have a slightly different effect on the brain. Each, however, has been shown to massively impact the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is a “feel good” neurotransmitter that has a large role in the pleasure system in the body. Scientists believe the “reward” system is specially lit up from substance use, which leads people to feel excess levels of pleasure after using. For people with addiction, the brain begins to think it needs substances in order to feel this dopamine rush at all. People who don’t have an addiction, enjoy the dopamine rise while under the influence and do not feel the need to get more once it passes. 

Over time, the higher use of substances creates higher standards for the brain. The body adapts to the high of each dopamine increase and expects more and more of it. This increases the body’s natural tolerance. Tolerance refers to the amount of substance needed to create the same high, which increases over time and use. 

This starts a very dangerous cycle of feeding the brain dopamine highs at higher and higher levels to keep up with tolerance levels. Of course, the more someone is using, the more addictive and dangerous the drug will be to the overall health of the individual. The combination of higher tolerance and more exposure to the drug leads to more prominent health issues, stronger addiction, and sometimes fatal overdoses. 

What Other Parts Of The Brain Are Involved In Addiction?

The three main parts of the brain involved in addiction are the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. 

The basal ganglia are the area that controls the reward system. Its function is to develop routines, motivation, sexual pleasure, and healthy habits. When the basal ganglia are flooded with dopamine from drugs it becomes harder to stimulate without drugs. This urges people to seek more drugs and further their addiction. 

The extended amygdala is the opposite, playing a role in the development of negative emotions like anxiety, depression, lack of motivation, and stress. Increases drug use stimulates this area and produces depressive symptoms like sadness, isolation, and less desire to participate in normal hobbies. Overstimulation of the extended amygdala can make it harder to find the drive to give up drugs and build a healthy life. 

The prefrontal cortex is the most widely known area of the brain. It gives us the ability to think critically, create, problem-solve, handle impulses, and make decisions. This is the last area of the brain to develop, making drug use at younger ages even more dangerous. Excess use of alcohol specifically affects the prefrontal cortex. Substance use, in general, lowers impulse control and decision-making needed to function in healthy and safe ways. 

Why The Brain Becomes Addicted 

As mentioned before, there are so many factors that play into the development of chronic relapsing addiction. While we experience reward system stimulation daily, the intensity is much higher with substances. If you have a brain already sensitive to dopamine changes or substance use, you can become addicted to drugs and alcohol very easily. 

Addiction truly is a chronic brain disease. Once it is formed in the brain and body, it will be there forever. Addiction means the individual no longer can control their substance use, and the best way to overcome this is to seek professional help to reverse these patterns in the brain. 

Treatment Is Available At Little Creek Recovery

Little Creek Recovery specializes in the care and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. We take an individualized approach to each person and find the best possible treatment needs to address any mental, physical, or emotional needs. If you’re an adult man or know of one seeking addiction treatment, reach out to us to find out more about our recovery program. 



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