Addiction can lead to many problems, both in terms of health and quality of life. We know that treatment can help people overcome substance use disorders, but what about the damage already done to a person's brain?
Fortunately, people are resilient it is possible for areas of the brain affected by drug use to recover.
Drugs and Alcohol in America
There are some quite significant statistics relating to substance misuse in the US published by The National Institutes of Health. Approximately 4% of US citizens suffer from drug use disorder, and about 10% have suffered from the condition at some point in their lives. These statistics suggest that over 23 million American adults experience problematic drug use.
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse makes clear, people who use drugs don’t lack moral principles or willpower. Stopping isn’t simply a matter of choice. Instead, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting isn’t a matter of good intentions or a strong will. This is because drugs change our brains in ways that make quitting hard. Drug use creates mental illnesses and complex brain disorders.
Given this, you may be asking, how long does it take brain cells to recover from addiction?
Can you Heal your Brain Cells After Addiction?
The good news is that addiction specialists have developed effective treatments that can help your brain heal and recover from drug addiction. You can return to wellness and lead a happier and healthier life with the proper support and care.
However, because addiction leads to changes in our brain chemistry, the path to good brain health and full recovery often requires long-term therapy. But it is possible to heal the damage addiction can cause.
Why Does Drug Abuse Damage Our Brains?
According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, repeated use of addictive substances causes changes in the brain circuits governing pleasure, reward, learning, stress, decision-making, and self-control.
Substance Abuse and the Pleasure Circuits in your Brain
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that move between nerve cells. When you take a potentially addictive drug like opioids, cocaine, or alcohol, your brain releases dopamine. Dopamine, one of your brain's neurotransmitters, is associated with feelings of pleasure. The basal ganglia govern your brain’s reward system and your ability to learn from those rewards.
Addiction research shows that over time, as substance use increases, your brain’s chemical processes and circuits adjust and become less sensitive to dopamine levels. As a consequence, the substance’s ability to get you high is reduced. This process of adaptation is called tolerance.
The affected brain circuits and neural pathways control your ability to take pleasure from things like social interaction, food, sex, and other everyday activities. As a result of this increasing tolerance, you experience a craving for more of the substance, so you can feel the same high to which your body has become accustomed.
Substance misuse disrupts your brain's chemistry and this natural reward system, and with reduced dopamine production, your regular life feels progressively less enjoyable unless you use drugs or alcohol.
How Addiction Creates Mental Triggers in Your Brain
In effect, you train your brain to associate feeling high with certain activities by repeatedly abusing a substance. For example, meeting friends you usually drink or do drugs with, the places you hang out, and other mental cues linked to addictive behaviors.
As changes in neural function continue, and your brain begins to associate more and more daily situations with the substance, you’ll find it increasingly difficult not to think about using because so many things remind you and stimulate cravings.
Addiction and Changes to Your Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex
Why can it be so difficult for us to stop drug or alcohol use? The answer is found in the physical structure of our extended amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
The extended amygdala controls your stress responses, which drive you to avoid pain and seek pleasure. However, a substance use disorder disrupts their balance. You begin to feel physical and emotional distress unless you take the substance.
We call this distress withdrawal, and it can be tough to bear. Mental responses designed to make us take life-protecting action now impel us to use drink or drugs.
But each time you do, you further retrain and disrupt your brain’s natural processes. Eventually, you may find that you no longer take the substance to feel high but instead just to avoid feeling low.
Many of the things that used to be priorities in your life or brought you pleasure—school, employment, family, friends, sports, hobbies—are pushed to the back of the line. They can’t compete with your brain’s new, number one fixation: alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behavior.
This process leads to what addiction specialists call compromised self-control. We don’t lose complete control of ourselves, and we are still responsible for our actions, but our impulse control is compromised, and we find it extremely challenging to ignore the powerful impulse to seek relief from withdrawal symptoms.
Addiction's Impact on Cognitive Function and Brain Health
The human brain is a complex, integrated network with a myriad of neural pathways. Brain scans show that changes in one part affect the whole. Whatever substance or behavior we might become addicted to, the drug makes damaging modifications to our brains. And this damage isn’t limited to the areas we’ve already discussed. In addition to the basal ganglia, extended amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, prolonged substance addiction impacts other brain regions too.
Although dopamine has a principal function in addiction, it isn’t the only neurotransmitter affected. Serotonin, acetylcholine, and GABA are impacted too, and each can play a role in our addiction. In addition to its job in well-being and warding off depression, serotonin plays a part in forming addictive habits and behavior. For example, a person affected by alcoholism will experience increased cravings for a drink when serotonin levels are low.
Studies have shown that alcohol and drugs affect cognitive flexibility, attention, working memory, and declarative learning.
The good news is that cognitive impairment associated with drugs is usually temporary. Through abstinence and therapy, normal function can be recovered. However, long-term drug misuse does run the risk of lasting cognitive decline.
Serious Addiction-Related Mental Health Problems
In addition to changing our brains in ways that make quitting addictive substances challenging and cause cognitive impairments, addiction to certain substances can cause even more profound mental illness.
For example, abusing amphetamines can lead to an addicted person developing schizophrenia-like psychosis. If you develop this psychosis, you will begin to behave in uncharacteristic and erratic ways. Feelings of intense paranoia might even cause violent behavior. In addition, you might experience hallucinations, become preoccupied with your thoughts, and pick at your skin.
Long-term or heavy alcohol abuse can damage your hippocampus, the brain area where new memories form. In the worst cases, this damage leads to the development of alcohol-related dementia. This form of brain damage is closely related to another alcohol-induced condition, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or WKS.
Both alcohol-related dementia and WKS are examples of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). These brain disorders are caused by regularly drinking to excess, or binge drinking, over the years. Other forms of ARBD include alcohol-related stroke and alcohol-induced traumatic brain injury.
Unlike true dementia, it is possible to recover from alcohol-related dementia and Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome if you seek help and get treatment quickly.
These aren’t the only mental illness conditions that co-occur or are related to addiction. Other conditions associated with drug and alcohol misuse include:
- anxiety disorders
- attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- bipolar disorder
- personality disorders
How Long Does Brain Recovery Take?
How long it will take for your brain to heal and rewire itself after alcohol addiction or drug misuse depends on multiple factors, including:
- the substance you abused
- the severity and duration of your alcohol or drug misuse
- how much of the substance you regularly took
- your overall state of health
- the nature of any damage to your brain structure
- whether you have any co-occurring mental illness
- whether you undertake addiction treatment
- your support network
Given these variables, the rewiring process may take weeks or months to reverse the damage caused by alcohol or drug misuse and return your brain to full health. However, by attending an addiction treatment center and following a program designed to improve brain health, you can speed up and help the process.
One study using magnetic resonance imaging showed that dopamine transporter levels returned to near-normal levels after 14 months of abstinence. The study looked at the brains of those who abused methamphetamines, but more research is needed on other drugs and alcohol.
How your Brain Adapts
Your brain’s natural adaptivity will assist this healing process. Just as neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to adapt, played a part in your growing addiction, it fulfills a much more positive role in your recovery. It can help your brain chemistry normalize and modify your addiction-related behaviors. Therapeutic interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can guide this natural adaptivity towards new behaviors and thinking patterns focused on abstinence.
Repair, Rewire, and Retrain Your Brain at Cornerstone
At Cornerstone, you can begin a healing journey to undo the damage drugs or alcohol have done to your brain. We, as medical professionals, are committed to providing you with the best treatment options for recovery.
Our years of experience combined with extensive knowledge of addiction-related mental disorders will enable us to support your transition to a drug and alcohol-free life.
We recognize that you are unique and that your addiction recovery requires an equally unique addiction treatment program. We will design a bespoke therapy regime to meet your specific needs. Behavioral therapy can help you think clearly, recover your authentic self, and live a life free of substance abuse.
We offer detox services, one-to-one therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and couples therapy to help your brain recover and a fully holistic approach to addiction recovery. This also includes developing a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Once you’ve completed your healing program of treatment, our Cornerstone alumni program will help you with ongoing support as you make positive changes and continue along a path of good mental health and sobriety.
Contact us today to discover more about how Cornerstone can help you recover and heal from addiction.