How Do Drugs Affect the Limbic System?

The limbic system consists of the structures in the brain responsible for creating feelings and motivation. It can also be referred to as the brain’s gratification network, and is said to pre-date the rational brain network’s evolution. In other words, the limbic system controls our primitive instincts, including our “fight or flight” response. By contrast, the neocortex controls spatial reasons, language, learning, and other advanced functions. What does this mean for addiction? When it comes to the limbic system, it means everything.


The limbic system and addiction


Because the limbic system is the brain’s gratification network, it’s the primary system on which addictive drugs operate. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the limbic system, is a key part of the process. When enough dopamine is released into the system, it can result in euphoria. We’ve all experienced dopamine-based exhilaration in a variety of ways, whether it’s from a word of praise, a hug, a big sale, your sports team doing well, or any number of other positive, innocuous situations. By contrast, we experience dopamine depletion when suffering a disappointment.


The key point to remember is that when you take addictive substances, the limbic system’s chemistry kicks into gear and brings on euphoria. When you develop an overwhelming, involuntary need to experience the good feelings created by using substances, addiction develops. When the need becomes so great that you can’t control it through sheer willpower, an addiction recovery program becomes necessary.


Any drug that a person abuses changes the way the limbic system works and disrupts the modulation of feelings and behavior that form the foundation of normal behavior. Eventually, those feelings become disconnected from reality and artificial feelings of relief, pleasure, relaxation, and contentment take over. Regardless of the harm a substance may cause, a person who is addicted will continue to use that substance because of the alteration to the brain’s reward system.


Moreover, the levels of dopamine released by the limbic system become insufficient to produce the same level of euphoria (“high”). The person must then consume increasing levels of the drug to experience the same level of euphoria.


Drugs vs. natural rewards

Some drugs release up to 10 times the amount of dopamine that’s released during natural processes, such as eating or sex, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Not only do these effects last longer, they produce a powerful enough reward that people are motivated to abuse substances time and time again. In order to remedy this situation, a stay in a substance abuse treatment center may be necessary.


What happens over time

The ability to experience pleasure is ultimately reduced over time for a person who abuses drugs. Eventually that person feels lifeless, flat, and depressed, unable to enjoy the same things that were once pleasurable. The result is that they need to take drugs over and over again – and at increasing levels – to influence their dopamine function enough that they feel “normal.”


Chronic exposure to drugs can lead to an addiction, leaving the user to compulsively seek out and consume drugs. Simply put, the person’s daily routine and environment can become associated with drug abuse and the feelings it produces, eroding their self-control and ability to make sound decisions. For the addict, the only way to break this destructive pattern is to seek help at a substance abuse treatment facility.


If you’re prepared to overcome your addiction and begin working your way toward recovery, consider one of the qualified drug rehab clinics in the Amera Hope network.

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