Neuroplasticity and Addiction Recovery
Understanding how the brain heals can create new treatment options for addicts.
Posted Feb 05, 2013
We used to think that the brain, once damaged, could not repair itself. Breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown that this is not true.
Though individual neurons might be damaged beyond repair, the brain attempts to heal itself when damaged by making new connections or new neural pathways as workarounds for the damage. This is called neuroplasticity, coming from "neuro" (brain/nerve/neuron) and "plasticity" (moldability).
What does neuroplasticity mean for addiction treatment?
When we develop a habit, the brain creates a path in itself in support of that habit. As we engage in the habit over and over again, the pathway becomes well-worn or stronger. This is similar to lifting a weight. If you lift a weight over and over, the muscle will get stronger.
In many ways, addiction can be explained as a neuroplastic event. The brain gets trained to do a particular behavior—use drugs or alcohol or gambling—eventually to the exclusion of all else. But in treatment, we can retrain the brain, that is, develop a new pathway that supports recovery.
With intensive psychotherapy and other holistic interventions, we strengthen the new “recovery” loop within the brain. The brain then learns to enjoy recovery, those things that give us pleasure in our sober lives—family, work, interpersonal interactions. We retrain the brain and thus change our lives.
How does the brain’s function have a role in relapse?
Essentially, the pleasure centers of the brain are hijacked by the addiction. Eventually, it is only the addictive behavior that brings the addict any sense of joy or at least freedom from pain. This is not only a biochemical process, as the drugs themselves affect the brain’s biochemistry, but also a process of habit.
The addict’s brain becomes accustomed to the addictive act being the source of pleasure—not family, friends, a good meal, or a job well done. We can retrain the brain, and we can rebalance the addict’s biochemistry, But the old neuropathways, the old links between addiction and pleasure, are still there.
This is why we suggest complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol to addicts. It doesn’t take much to jump-start the old habit.
For example, you may not have been to your college campus in 20 years, but within minutes of arrival for a visit, it will become familiar to you—your old haunts, how to get around, etc. Addiction is no different. Recovery doesn’t remove the addictive thought process; it just gives the addict an opportunity to change behaviors.
What, then, is interpersonal neurobiology?
The term was coined by Dr. Dan Siegel of UCLA. It is a transdisciplinary approach to understanding how the brain works—weaving together understandings of why we behave as we do from fields as varied as anthropology, computer science, and psychology. Interpersonal neurobiology helps us to understand two things—first, how the brain actively works toward something called “integration,” and second that the brain is developed to grow and heal itself in relationship to others.
Integration means health and wholeness. The brain wants all its disparate parts to work together. It is designed for you to feel whole and happy. In recovery, we help the brain reach that goal with whole health support.
Relationships also play a significant role in mental health. Those who are isolated do not recover as well as those who have a loving support system in place. This is not just an intuitive deduction about mental health—there are many studies in neuroscience, the science of touch and psychology that support this claim.
Thus, to help the brain develop healthy neuropathways and to foster recovery, we help the addict build this interpersonal support system, both in treatment and beyond.