Our Blog

drug use changes the brain

Brain Plasticity in Addiction

Long-term drug use is a contributing factor in brain cell death, brain shrinkage, cognitive disease and many other issues. However, the brain’s flexibility enables it to heal even after experiencing significant hardship. It won’t always return to its original functioning, but enough healing is possible that many people succeed in their paths to recovery. As with any other organ, the brain can sustain injury and lose some of its functions — but you can also take steps to restore it.

How Does Addiction Influence Your Brain?

Sustained drug and alcohol abuse changes your brain in complex ways, including the following.

  • Drugs affect the brain’s reward center by mimicking the behavior of neurotransmitters.
  • Prolonged drinking and drug use can change your body’s biology, including brain size.
  • Addiction affects numerous parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex — your decision-making center.
  • Drug abuse harms your brain, but everyone’s brains respond differently to drug use due to various factors.

The brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin into its reward center, which causes a pleasurable feeling. You experience this response whenever you do something you enjoy, like exercising or hearing your favorite song. However, this reaction also happens when you drink or take drugs. 

Various drugs cause your brain to release a much larger flood of neurotransmitters than it can naturally handle. Over time, you will want to drink or use more to continue achieving that feeling, and your substance misuse will increase alongside your tolerance. And although drugs and alcohol copy the way neurotransmitters work, they aren’t entirely the same, which causes abnormal brain activity. Your brain may eventually stop recognizing naturally produced neurotransmitters, relying entirely on external substances to receive rewards.

How Drug Use Changes Your Brain

Many types of drugs facilitate addiction, but each affects the brain differently. Here are some of the most commonly abused drugs and how they impact your body’s message center.


Alcohol affects brain functioning as soon as it hits your bloodstream, reducing your ability to make decisions and form new memories. Your liver eventually filters this substance out of your system, and your brain regains its usual capabilities. However, this process becomes severely impaired when you have an alcohol addiction. Your liver can’t adequately remove the substance from your bloodstream, leaving you with a constant blood alcohol concentration. Over time, your brain tissue shrinks, and cells die. 


Opioids connect with receptors in your brain that regulate your moods and emotions. When you have an opioid use disorder, you need more of the substance to stabilize your mood and make you feel the resulting high. It’s relatively easy to become addicted because these receptors rapidly adapt to the opioids in your system. As your reward center craves more of the drug, its delicate balance becomes disrupted.


Cognitive decline is a normal part of the aging process — as we grow older, we lose brain matter, and this phenomenon is most noticeable in senior citizens. However, cocaine causes the brain to age at a faster rate than what’s healthy. One study from the University of Cambridge revealed that middle-aged people who were dependent on cocaine lost twice the brain volume of non-drug users.

Healing the Brain During Recovery

Though alcohol and drugs have lasting impacts on the brain, it’s not impossible to heal this organ once you start a holistic recovery program. Brain plasticity enables you to change and adapt to new situations with relative ease. The cognitive components that paved the way for your addiction can also help you restructure your thinking for the better. 

Your brain wants to aid you in recovery, and it can do so by constructing new networks, helping you move past traumas and addictions. It is a long, but worthwhile, process. You’ll be amazed at what your brain can do for you if you allow it to help you heal. Begin your journey toward lasting sobriety today by contacting us at Vista Taos.

Share this post