Recovering from Opioid Addiction: Addressing the Brain


This country is facing an unprecedented epidemic of opioid addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) now estimates that as many as 2.5 million Americans are addicted to either heroin, prescription pain killers, or some combination of the two. Why are so many people addicted substances that are known to ruin lives? To be able to answer this question, we have to start with the brain.


The effect of opioids on the brain is unique, intense, and ultimately devastating. When someone abuses an opioid, the drug sends signals to the brain to dump large quantities of dopamine. This surge in dopamine significantly increases activity in the limbic system, one of the oldest components of our brains that makes us feel pleasure. This is the part of the brain that tells us something is good for us to do again, like eat or have sex. In a sense, opioids trick the brain into thinking that using the drug is one of the most essential things we can do to stay alive or perpetuate our species. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Once opioids have taken control of the reward center of the brain, they can undermine the authority of other important areas of the brain, such as those that manage decision-making and patterns of behavior. The brain of a person with substance use disorder tells him or her that the most important thing they can do to stay alive is continue to abuse their drug of choice. The drug’s takeover of the brain is further compounded because the brain develops new neural pathways that reinforce drug seeking behavior. Addiction builds to the point where an individual simply cannot make good choices or maintain a healthy decision-making process. It most often takes assistance to overcome this problem.


It is no overstatement to say that addiction to opioids destroys lives, but this doesn’t have to continue. There are comprehensive, holistic, and successful treatment programs available that address the ways in which opioids co-opt the brain. By simultaneously addressing the underlying reasons why a person abused substances in the first place, as well as engaging in activities that engage and rewire the brain in healthier ways, a person can find recovery from opioid addiction.