Neuroplasticity and Drug Addiction

How to Rewire the Brain for Recovery

Learn how neuroplasticity plays a fundamental role in addiction and recovery.

Neuroplasticity and Drug Addiction

How to Rewire the Brain for Recovery

Learn how neuroplasticity plays a fundamental role in addiction and recovery.

The information presented on this page is a general overview and is offered here as a comprehensive resource. At Ampelis Recovery, our programs are customized and tailored to the individual’s needs. Specific details below that cover treatment protocols may not reflect the protocols used for our clients.

If you would like to learn more about Ampelis Recovery and our customized programs for professional men, please do not hesitate to reach out.


What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity refers to the elasticity of the brain, specifically, the neural pathways. These pathways are responsible for thought, logic, reason, mood, etc.1 The neural pathways change based on new knowledge, environment, stress, and behavior. The brain reinforces specific pathways to suit the environment. For example, learning protocols for a new job may be supported, whereas a past job’s protocols may be erased. It is in this way that the brain adapts to the world around it.

Interest, skill, culture, and experience determine an individual’s neuroplasticity. When a brain is mapped for medical diagnostics, it’s the neural pathways that are studied. Additionally, which areas of the brain show the most stimulation is also of interest.1

As an example, addiction or impulsiveness change the frontal lobe of the brain. This change causes a marked deficiency in executive function.

Neuroplasticity, in terms of recovery, focuses on reshaping the brain and repairing executive function.

Hebb’s Law

Hebb’s Law, named after Donald Hebb and also known as Hebbian theory, says that synaptic plasticity is created by two cells. The Hebbian theory essentially states that the ripple from a change in cell structure will move on to another section, stimulating growth and change.2

This newly stimulated cell then stimulates another and another. The result is entirely new or reinforced neural pathways. In time, this changes the overall map of an individual’s brain.3

Learn More About Healing the Brain

  • Holistic Approach
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Positive Psychology

Brain Plasticity as You Age

Studies have shown that as we age, our brains become more rigid.4 Overall, neuroplasticity declines. However, the level of this decline is heavily based on genetic and individual factors. Studies into brain training, such as memory or strategy games, have shown some improvement to brain plasticity as we age. Also, an active lifestyle is proven to slow down the effects of cognitive aging.5 The brain is a complex muscle that requires proper nutrition and exercise. Without a correct diet and mental exercise, the rate of decay is increased.6

Matter in the Brain

The brain is comprised of white and grey matter that, in moderation, is a healthy component of cognitive function. However, older adults have increased white matter, which drastically lowers brain plasticity.7

Reduced brain plasticity in older adults is linked to memory loss, critical thinking, dementia, depression, and severe irritability. 8

Functional Medicine Philosophy of Addiction

A functional medicine philosophy is a holistic or system-based view of treatment.9 It’s client-centric and aims to integrate them into the diagnostic team. Within this philosophy, the learning model is a synergetic component. Because addiction is learned, it can be unlearned. People build new habits every day almost unconsciously. Taking the same set of stairs, eating lunch in a certain spot, etc. All of these behaviors are subject to change based on environmental and cultural factors. When they change, so do neural pathways. Substance use is seen as no different than any other learned behavior.
Through this ideology, a medical professional seeks to uncover triggers that cause substance use. Once a trigger is identified, neural training can begin. For example, if an individual gets high every time a specific song plays, a medical professional will encourage a different activity. Over time, this provides greater control of addiction triggers and general emotional events.

Causes vs. Reasons

Causes vs. reasons are different ways to look at medical treatment. Functional medicine seeks to uncover the reason for the condition instead of the cause.10 For example, heart failure can be treated by knowing the biological cause of the disease, but learning that substance use was the reason for the disease, opens up diagnoses and treatment options. The shift in thinking should encourage a deeper connection between physician and client.

How Do Drugs Affect Neuroplasticity?

Every drug affects neuroplasticity in different ways. Certain effects can be intensified or reduced based on individual health factors. However, these are the most common changes.

Chemical Changes

In an article published in Nature titled Drug Addiction as a Pathology of Staged Neuroplasticity, the authors state, “[a]dvances over the last decade have identified the brain circuits most vulnerable to drug-induced changes, as well as many associated molecular and morphological underpinnings . . . [t]hese findings also provide the basis for the current understanding of addiction as a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain with changes that persist long after the last use of the drug.”11

Plasticity is used detrimentally during the process of addiction. According to Charles P. Obrien, MF, Ph.D., “studies have shown the development of addiction can be demonstrated by brain imaging studies that show rapid activation (increased blood flow to reward pathways) when drug-related cues are shown to addicts who have been free of drugs for at least a month.12 Even cues so brief that they do not reach consciousness (33 msec) can produce rapid activation.”13

Substance-Induced Behavioral Change

The dopamine released from substance abuse, particularly in individuals prone to addiction, can induce drastic behavioral changes.14 This is due to the rewiring of the brain to prioritize drugs as essential. Studies have shown the rewiring caused by substance-induced behavioral changes can last years or a lifetime.15 However, many other cognitive changes can be rewired within a few months. For example, the time it takes to learn a language, acquire a skill, etc., requires far less time to fade than addiction.

Substance-induced behavioral change is a sure sign that dependency has developed. These changes can be drastic enough that family and friends may have difficulty recognizing or emotionally connecting with the individual. The behavioral changes infrequently contribute to the social observation of substance dependency, i.e., unkempt appearance, always late, etc.

Neural Plasticity and Addiction Treatment

Neuroplasticity is an important factor in addiction treatment. Here are a few ways to use neuroplasticity in recovery.

Cognitive Behavioral Education

Cognitive-behavioral education is also known as cognitive-behavioral treatment or CBT for short. CBT aims to change and rewire certain neural pathways.16 CBT achieves this goal through verbal communication and through challenging certain biases and viewpoints. In this context, it aims to change the neural pathways formed from addiction.16 Neuroplasticity assists in the treatment by making it easier to make new neural pathways.

Neuroplasticity Exercises in Rehab

Neuroplasticity exercises in rehab are primarily conversation-based therapy. However, certain exercises can be done to bolster the therapeutic effect. This includes memory games, strategy games, and topical analysis. Additionally, some aerobic physical exercises may be implemented further to increase the brain receptiveness to other treatment methods.

Using Neuroplasticity to Heal the Brain

Neuroplasticity healing is not an overnight event.17 In terms of addiction, it can take months to years for an individual to maintain sobriety or learn effective coping methods. However, some factors play the largest role in the process of neuroplasticity healing.18


A healthy diet gives the brain the fuel it needs to undergo neuroplasticity healing. Fruits and vegetables are essential to brain health. Certain meats, such as seafood, can also boost brain plasticity.


Moderate aerobic exercise can improve blood flow, burn fat, and improve self-image. This contributes to a more efficient brain and directly changes the reward center due to exercise-related dopamine releases.


Proper rest is vital for several reasons, but most importantly, it gives the brain time to heal. Sleep offers the body the chance to process and repair. Adequate sleep is crucial to overcoming mental illness such as depression.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the fuel neurotransmitters use to form new connections. Amino acids are obtained from your diet. They are crucial not just to neural plasticity healing but to the brain in general. There are 20 amino acids. Each of them plays a separate but interconnected role in individual health.

Low amino acids can cause mental fog, stunted growth, irritability, and increased individual proneness to infection.19 It could be argued that amino acids are the building blocks of change and are also crucial to maintaining change.

More to Learn about Neuroplasticity and Addiction

Medical science is ever-evolving. The full effect of addiction on neuroplasticity is still being studied. However, it is a guarantee that neuroplasticity is a vital component of developing addiction and effective recovery.

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