Addiction affects brain in three phases: Study

Alcoholism is a long-term (chronic) disease, which causes serious problems to physical health, emotional stability, finances, career and relationships. Excessive alcohol is dangerous as it disrupts the brain circuits that control impulsiveness and stimulate the nervous system.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), alcohol addiction is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the U.S. For long, scientists have considered alcoholism a disease because it’s absorbed into the bloodstream and affects every part of the body, putting the addict’s health at serious risk by damaging the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and almost every other body part.

To illustrate how addiction is a disease of the brain, scientists came up with a study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January 2016. It says that addiction, including alcoholism, is a disease affecting the brain in three phases, which in turn affects a person’s behavior.

“But simply telling people that addiction is a disease doesn’t always convey the severity of the condition or convince them that it goes beyond a voluntary behavior,” says National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director and lead author of the study Dr. Nora Volkow.

“In addition to improving people’s understanding of addiction as a disease, the ‘three-stage’ framework presented in the review can be used as a guide for studying the circuits in the brain and for developing medications to treat addiction,” said National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism director and co-author of the study George Koob.

Findings of the study

In the study, the scientists divided addiction into three broad categories:

Intoxication: In this stage, the quantity of alcohol addicts consume impairs their mental and physical abilities, making them feel euphoric.

Withdrawal: In the second stage, intoxication can eventually lead to changes in the connectivity of the brain which makes people feel depressed when they suddenly stop drinking after prolonged and heavy alcohol use.

Changes in prefrontal cortex of the brain: In the third stage, changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where processes like decision-making and self-regulation take place, decrease a person’s ability to resist strong urges.

These brain changes may explain why people find it difficult to suppress their relentless craving that fuels ongoing addictive behavior. The researchers believe that these three stages may not necessarily be distinct, but blend with one another to give a combined effect. “If doctors could say to someone, you need to drink alcohol for 90 days to become addicted, people would be careful to avoid that in order to prevent addiction,” says Volkow. “But in reality, that’s not the case. It’s basically unpredictable.”

Path to recovery

Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 2.5 million years of potential life lost annually, or an average of about 30 years of potential life lost for each death, says NCADD. Over time, excessive alcohol use, both in the form of heavy drinking or binge drinking, can lead to numerous health problems, chronic diseases, neurological impairments and social problems.

Like other deadly diseases, drinking can also get out of control gradually. That’s why it’s important to reconsider your drinking habits. If you or a loved one is struggling to get out of this devastating habit, alcohol treatment centers can help you get the right treatment. Get in touch with the Alcohol Addiction Helpline today at 866-281-3014. Right counseling and support can help tackle social factors that might contribute to an alcohol problem.