Neuroplasticity and Drug Addiction

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Neuroplasticity and Drug Addiction

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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.

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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. The neural pathways change based on new knowledge, as well as environment, stress, and behavior. The brain reinforces certain pathways to suit the environment. For example, learning protocols for a new job may be supported, whereas the protocols from a past job may be erased. It’s in this way, the brain adapts to the world around it.

An individual’s neuroplasticity is determined by their interest, skills, culture, and experience. 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.

As an example, addiction and/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, so named after Donald Hebb, says that the synaptic plasticity is created by two cells. Hebb’s Law, also known as Hebbian theory, essentially states that the ripple from a change in cell structure will move on to another section, which stimulates growth and change.

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

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. 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 little improvement to brain plasticity as we age. However, an active lifestyle is proven to slow down the effects of cognitive aging. 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.

Matter in the Brain

The brain is comprised of white and grey matter that in moderation is a healthy component of cognitive function. However, elderly people have increased white matter which drastically lowers brain plasticity. This condition is considered age-related. Reduced brain plasticity in the elderly is linked to memory loss, critical thinking, dementia, depression, and severe irritability.

Learning Model of Addiction

The learning model of addiction treats addiction as a learned behavior. This means an individual develops addiction from external causes such as culture or household.

Part of a Functional Medicine Philosophy

A functional medicine philosophy is a holistic or system-based view of treatment. It’s patient-centric and aims to integrate them into the diagnostic team. Within this philosophy, the learning model is a synergetic component. The learning treats addiction as a learned behavior that changes the brain. However, all that is learned 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 identified the neural associations may be changed. For example, if an individual gets high every time a certain song plays, then a medical professional will encourage a separate, easy activity to do instead. Over time, this provides greater control of addiction triggers and general emotional events.

The learning model also works to change how a medical professional perceives a patient with substance use disorder. It creates a mindset of empathy that builds upon patient/doctor trust and treatment efficacy.

Causes vs. Reasons

Causes vs. reasons are best surmised as a drastic shift in medical thinking. A holistic approach seeks to uncover the reason for the condition as opposed to the cause. For example, in a non-holistic approach, a patient may be diagnosed with acute heart failure. The cause for it may be substance use. Treatment is then tailored to treat heart failure.

Conversely, a reason-based approach seeks to uncover the overall reason for substance abuse and thereby prevent further medical events. This shift in thinking encourages a deeper connection between physician and patient.

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.

Physical/Chemical Changes

Primarily, it’s experience that changes neuroplasticity. 1 This change is a key insight into the nature of addiction. Physical changes include weight loss, hair loss, poor teeth, etc. The chemical changes in the brain take place in the reward center. Substance abuse triggers the reward center in the brain, which in turn leads to addiction. Brain plasticity suffers as this chemical change dampens the ability to form new neural pathways.

Substance-Induced Behavioral Change

The dopamine released from substance abuse, particularly in individuals prone to addiction, can induce drastic behavioral changes. 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. 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 in addiction frequently contribute to the social observation of substance dependency, i.e. unkempt appearance, always late, etc.

Neural Plasticity and Addiction Treatment

As mentioned, neural plasticity is an important factor for addiction treatment. Here are a few adjacent factors and tools to use when battling addiction.

Rewiring the Brain

Rewiring the brain’s neural plasticity is possible through experience and education, along with other active methods. Rewiring neural plasticity is more difficult in elderly patients, and long-range rewiring is only capable of youth. A few rewiring and brain plasticity factors include a healthy diet, interpersonal relationships, mental state, and adequate sleep.

In 2010, A self-help book by Dr. John B. Arden titled Rewire Your Brain was published. The purpose of the work is to offer proven methods of rewiring the brain in everyday life. Rewire Your Brain utilizes recent medical developments to inform and educate the reader. Lastly, it follows a holistic approach to neural sciences and the development of neural pathways.

Cognitive Behavioral Education

Cognitive-behavioral education is also known as a cognitive-behavioral treatment or CBT for short. CBT aims to change and rewire certain neural pathways. 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. In doing so, it also aims to improve neural plasticity.

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.2 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.

Diet

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.

Exercise

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.

Sleep

Proper rest is vital for several reasons, but most importantly, 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. 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.
Meta: The full effect of addiction on neuroplasticity is still being studied. However, neuroplasticity is a vital component of understanding addiction and effective recovery.

Resources

  1. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181920/
  2. www.health.harvard.edu/blog/brain-plasticity-in-drug-addiction-burden-and-benefit-2020062620479

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