When you see someone struggling with a substance use disorder, it’s easy to write it off and blame them for their addiction. It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “they did it to themselves,” “they don’t care about who they’re hurting,”  or “they can stop at any moment.” But the reality is that addiction doesn’t work this way, and most people don’t understand how or why people become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

What Causes Addiction?

Drug and alcohol addiction is a complex disease and quitting takes more than willpower. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences.”

While the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, repeated use can lead to changes in the brain that challenge a person’s self-control and interferes with their ability to resist urges to use.

Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol will become addicted. Unfortunately, there’s no one factor that can predict whether a person will develop an addiction, but these three factors do have an influence:

  • Genetics: Research has shown that 50-75% of the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction comes from genetics or a family history of the illness.
  • Environment: Growing up in an environment with adults who use drugs or alcohol or engage in criminal behavior is another big risk factor for addiction.
  • Development: Addiction can develop at any age, but research shows that the earlier a person tries drugs, the more likely it is that they’ll develop an addiction. Because the brain isn’t finished developing until we’re in our mid-20s, introducing the brain to drugs before this can cause serious, lasting damage.

What Happens To The Brain When A Person Uses Drugs?

Most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit,” which is part of the limbic system, by flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. The reward system of the brain controls the body’s ability to feel pleasure and motivates a person to repeat behaviors needed to thrive, such as spending time with loved ones or eating. When you use drugs or alcohol, the overstimulation of the reward circuit causes a pleasurable high that can lead people to continue taking the drug.

As a person continues to use, the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine by making less of it. This reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high they felt when they first started using, an effect known as tolerance. In turn, some people start taking more of the drug in an attempt to achieve the same dopamine high. This may also cause them to get less pleasure from other activities they once enjoyed, such as social activities or hobbies.

Brain Effects of Drugs And Alcohol

Brain imaging studies from people with a substance use disorder show physical, measurable changes in areas of the brain that are critical for judgment, decision-making, learning, behavior control, and memory. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors often associated with addiction.

For example, a straight A student may start to see his or her grades slip. A well-behaved child may start stealing or lying to his or her parents. A top athlete may quit the sport and start spending time alone. Behavioral changes such as these are directly linked to the changing brain of someone with a substance use disorder.

Can Addiction Be Cured?

As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, treatment for addiction isn’t considered a “cure.” However, addiction is treatable, and with the right treatment methods, people with a substance use disorder can and do recover.

It’s important to understand that because addiction is considered a “relapsing” brain disease, people in recovery are at an increased risk of returning to substance use even after years of not using drug or alcohol. However, just because it’s common for people to relapse doesn’t mean everyone will relapse at some point. Relapse is also not an indicator that treatment doesn’t work.

Recovery Is Possible

Although substance use and addiction have a serious impact on the brain, recovery is possible. Even though it may feel like it at the time, addiction is not your fault, and you are worthy of sobriety. But you don’t have to do this alone. At Orlando Recovery Center, we’re here to help you every step of the way. By combining the right treatment program with ongoing support, you’ll be able to overcome your addiction and live a happy life in recovery.


Brain and Addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2016, from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/brain-and-addiction

Science of Addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2016, from https://www.shatterproof.org/about-addiction/science-of-addiction

The Science Of Drug Abuse And Addiction: The Basics. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2016, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics

Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. (2016, August). Retrieved December 22, 2016, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.