Addiction–The Hijacked Brain

March 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Addiction

This shows neurotransmitters in the synapse between two brain cells.

Electrochemical messages are passed between brain cells. Similar signals are passed to every cell in the body. Each is studded with “receptor sites,” a kind of “mail box” for these electrochemical messengers.

Addiction is a brain disease. Drug abuse is preventable behavior. Drug addiction is a treatable disease.  So many people think that it’s a lack of willpower. But, it’s not.  Addiction is a chronic, pervasive, progressive brain disease that worsens over time, devastating millions of families worldwide.

Some people are genetically more at risk than others. If you have a sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent who is addicted (to anything) , then you’re at higher risk of become an addict yourself. You’re vulnerable to addiction. That doesn’t mean that you’re doomed.

It’s all about dopamine

Dopamine is released in the brain in response to, and in anticipation of, a reward—be it alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sex, food, or a shopping spree, to name a few rewards.  The reward center in the middle of the brain becomes overactive with usage of a substance or activity that stimulates that area.

The substance wreaks havoc with brain chemistry and structure, which can clearly be seen on brain scans. Over time with continued usage, the chronic flooding of dopamine results in the depletion and deregulation of dopamine as well as other neurotransmitters involved in stress and reward. Consequently, by the time an addiction is established, the drug brings little pleasure and only helps the user to feel temporarily ‘normal’.

The “Go System”

Deep in the brain, we all have a reward system, a pleasure center that evolved to help us to pursue rewards. This was necessary for our survival millions of years ago. When the reward system in the middle of the brain becomes active, it’s as if it says, “Go! Go! Go!” Go for the drug! Go for that extra dessert! Go for the excessive alcohol! Go looking for porn on the internet! Go! Go! Go!

The “Stop System”

Another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex or higher brain, evolved over time to help us to weigh the consequences of our decisions. It helps us to put a lid on impulsive behavior. It says, “Stop!”

The signals to the prefrontal cortex, however, tend to be a bit slower. So, we need to stop and think things out before forging ahead with an impulsive decision. To make things even more frustrating for parents, the brain isn’t finished growing until we’re about twenty-five or thirty years old. So we tend to have an undeveloped stop system before those ages.

The stop system in our brain says, “This is not smart to drive so fast, eat so much, or yell at a stranger.” So, why doesn’t it work so well with substance abuse?

The “Hijack”

Putting it in the simplest terms, the “go system” hijacks the “stop system” in the course of this brain disease called addiction. This is why addicts often lose everything before life smacks them in the face hard enough to get their attention that there is a problem–a BIG problem that they have been in denial about for quite some time.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous begins with admitting powerlessness. From my point of view, the hijacked brain contributes to powerlessness. When addicts/alcoholics say that they can control their usage despite evidence to the contrary (that friends and family can clearly see), they are not understanding the first step.


In order to get better, the addict needs several things. One of them is a period of sobriety in which they are not activating the reward system of the brain through ANY addictive substances or behaviors. Since dopamine and other neurotransmitters have been affected, most addicts that I’ve seen over the years need another chemical source of help–antidepressants–in order to feel good enough to make it through that critical first year of sobriety.

Sobering Thoughts

I recently attended a substance abuse conference in which Dr. Michael Dennis, senior research psychologist and director of Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington IL, spoke about the realities of drug dependency. Dr. Dennis was the coordinating center principal investigator of the largest adolescent treatment experiment to date in the United States, the Cannabis Youth Treatment (CYT) study. He has many more very impressive credentials. Some of the sobering thoughts that he said include:

  • The younger a person is when they begin using drugs, the longer the person uses drugs in their lifetime. Early use is highly correlated with dependency.
  • On average, most substance abusing teenagers are in treatment for two months. This is not enough for the vast majority of teens who are classified as having a substance abuse or substance dependent disorder.
  • The average adult substance abuser takes three or four treatment episodes over a period of nine years to achieve one consecutive year of sobriety.

Knowing that, parents of teenagers ought to get a thorough drug and alcohol evaluation (including a SASSI-A2 assessment) with a licensed substance abuse specialist and FOLLOW the treatment recommendations made by that specialist. So much heartache could be avoided if parents would take the recommendations seriously. Our company specialized in Substance Abuse Treatment and Relapse Prevention. We have many therapists in Bountiful, Utah that are trained professionals, licensed by the State of Utah to help treat, diagnose, and asssess the severity of a clients situation, and can give appropriate recommendations for a treatment plan.

For more information, or to get in touch with us, please visit our website at:

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3 Comments on "Addiction–The Hijacked Brain"

  1. 10 Myths of Addiction on Sun, 22nd Mar 2009 8:53 pm 

    […] FACT: Drug addiction is a brain disease. Changes in the brain range from changes in the molecules and cells that make up the brain, to mood changes, to changes in memory processes and in such motor skills as walking and talking. And these changes have a huge influence on all aspects of a person’s behavior. The drug becomes the single most powerful motivator in a drug abuser’s life. He or will do almost anything for the drug. This happens because drug use has changed the person’s brain and its functioning in critical ways. (See Addiction–The Hijacked Brain) […]

  2. Mat on Wed, 8th Sep 2010 9:30 am 

    Great little summary of the Hijacked Brain Hypothesis. I have only one issue. A hijacked brain, in my opinion, is not a “disease.” It’s more a function of an atavistic evolutionary processes. From an evolutionary psychological perspective, human addictive behaviors are the result of how our brains evolved complex neurocircuitries that reward us for certain activities because those activities were advantageous for our survival. (Chemical addictions exist only inasmuch as they fire up the reward centers of the brain, as your article states.) Our brains are hijacked by certain behaviors (or chemicals) because certain behaviors were once advantageous to us or our species back in the Stone-age: promiscuity, sugar, salt, risk, sleep, etc. We may drive around in cars, play on computers, and enjoy reading philosophy, but underneath our modern skulls are stone-age brains. That’s why certain behaviors are almost irresistible to almost all of us, and a few of us find them so irresistible that we become addicts: Fight or Flight, Sex , Eating, Sleeping. It’s also why addictions are born, not made. Addiction in and of itself ain’t got much to do with trauma, spirituality, morals, or “feelings.” It’s just a function of a rather primitive brain system that hasn’t yet caught up with our “civilized” world. Nevertheless, addictions wreak havoc on our lives, and in the midst of that chaos there is trauma, betrayal, immorality, spiritual vacuity, and feelings of darkness and hopelessness. We can’t be happy living like cavemen and cave women in our modern world. The good news is that, with lots of support, and perhaps some antidepressants, we can learn to listen to our prefrontal cortex and tell our addict brain to go jump in a lake. But, again, calling this system a “disease” is not helpful. It’s not a disease. All of our brains are wired to seek out certain things as rewards–it could be work, another person, sex, food, risk, money, violence. But, these ancient instinctual impulses can, for some of us, in certain areas, become obsessive, excessive, and compulsive. Like your article points out, we have to cool things down in our brains, lower the dopamine levels, and start thinking in new ways. AA works for a lot of folks, because it does all these things, not because it’s etiology of addiction is based in fact. Thanks for the great article.

  3. Addiction to Drugs and Alcohol: Self-hatred, cravings, and therapy | Psychotherapy in NYC | Thoughts on Therapy on Sat, 14th May 2011 12:44 pm 

    […] Just what leads to addiction is a complex and highly-debated question. Some see addiction as a genetic or biochemical issue; others see it as a spiritual malady; some believe it is situational and reactive; and many see it as being due to historical psychological factors. In fact, addiction and alcoholism are multi-determined and include a number of interactive factors. The critical question in terms of helping people, at least early in their recovery, is not what caused it but what helps them change it. Once you take a substance into your body, it will change your biochemistry. At least from that point on, the addiction takes on a life of its own. One point of view is that the brain has been hijacked by the drug. […]

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