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Neuroscience—the science of understanding the brain and how it works—is developing and changing the way we treat addiction.

We once thought that nerves did not regenerate, that once a person suffered some sort of brain damage there was nothing that could be done to regain the lost brain function.  New research has found that while some brain damage is profound, the brain does have the ability to recover some function on its own; it is malleable in ways we previously could not imagine. This ability of the brain to heal itself is called neuroplasticity.

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Addiction recovery itself is a neuroplastic event. The brain works in a very simple way. When you engage in a behavior, the neural pathways of the brain are strengthened around that behavior. In the same way that your muscles become stronger when you lift a heavy weight over and over, repeating the same behavior stimulates the brain in a particular way so that it becomes accustomed to the new behavior.  With addiction, the pleasure centers of the brain are taken over as the addictive behavior is reinforced. The addictive pattern becomes so strong in the brain, and other connections get weaker, so that “happiness” or “pleasure” is only derived from the addictive pattern. The addict requires treatment to rewire the brain and normalize this process.

In treatment, various therapies are provided to the addict to help him rewire his brain, to create or strengthen different neural pathways. We help you rebuild your brain so that family, work successes, and social interactions become pleasurable events again. Further, we help you to develop an understanding of your brain and how it works to avoid relapse – because those old neural pathways are still there in your brain. If you begin using again, your brain says to itself, “This is a pattern I understand!” – and you’re right back where you once were, caught in the trap of addiction.  Making strong neural pathways that are not part of the addictive process is an important part of recovery.

Addiction has very little to do with the drugs you ingest. If your problem was the drugs or alcohol (or sex or gambling or anything else), once you were detoxed from that drug, you would no longer have that problem. But because the problem of addiction rests in the brain and its functions, just eliminating the drug does not lead to complete recovery. We now know that behavior change leads to a change in brain function, which is the foundation of recovery.


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