This fantastic capability of the brain to adapt gives hope that anyone with substance use disorder (SUD) or other serious psychiatric issues can make a full recovery. Here we’ll explore some of the implications of this ability in the context of SUD treatment. Contact our team at Dallas Drug Treatment Centers to find evidence-based rehab programs in North Texas.
Medical professionals had known for centuries that the brain had something to do with how we learned and formed behaviors. However, much of what was known was mostly educated conjecture, as researchers had no reliable way of “seeing” the brain in real as it responded to outside events.1
This all changed with the maturation of technologies like magnetic resonance imaging. This ability to safely observe the brain in real-time and regularly over extended periods had eventually upended many old assumptions, such as the duality of mind and body, and the idea of adult brains being mostly static and hard put to learn anything new.1
Today, we know that the “mental” is physical and the brain is far more dynamic and changing than we previously realized. This capacity to change, called plasticity, was previously not thought to be existent in fully developed adult brains.
Old assumptions had led to some significant problems in how mental health conditions like substance use disorder were treated. For instance, it was assumed, and still is in some circles, that serious mental health disorders were permanent. Now we know that brain can recover by “rewiring” itself, even creating new cells when active efforts to learn and experience new things are made.2,3,4,5
Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to change itself structurally and functional in response to repeated outside stimuli. In other words, it’s the ability of the brain to learn. There is a growing amount of evidence that substance use disorder and other psychiatric disorders are illnesses that are directly or indirectly connected to this process.3,4,5
Broadly speaking, the substances most commonly associated with misuse alter levels of different brain hormones. The level of dopamine, the hormone associated with pleasure, is often altered by substance misuse to unnaturally high levels, causing an unusually strong “reward emotion”.2,3,4,5,6
Over time, the brain “learns” to associate the use of the substance with pleasure and reconfigures itself, causing strong cravings for the substance. With repeated substance use, the brain begins to see the irregular chemical levels as its “normal” state, which may cause intense discomfort and other withdrawal symptoms when use is discontinued.5
One thing even early researchers of learning theory understood was that the minds of young children worked differently from those of adults. It could be observed that younger children tend to pick up language and other skills that fully grown adults struggle with, such as complex memorization, sporting techniques, and mastery of musical instruments.1
Now it’s understood that, while brain plasticity remains throughout a person’s life, it is particularly strong during childhood and adolescence. This may mean that the brains of young people are more prone to mental illnesses that are facilitated by greater plasticity— including substance use disorder. However, this greater plasticity may mean they have a better capacity to recover, as well. 2,3,5,7
While neuroplasticity contributes to SUD and other related mental health conditions, it may also be the key to recovery. There is evidence that avoiding substance use and stress while regularly engaging in activities that stimulate the brain may encourage the growth of fresh neural connections separate from maladaptive ones.3,6,7,8
Activities that show promise in helping the brain readjust from SUD-related connections include but are not limited to the following:
It seems that the important thing about these recovery activities is that they are done regularly and provide a novel, consistent challenge each time.8 That is to say, when an activity is starting to feel stale or routine, it may be a sign to step up the challenge or do something new.2,6,8
If you’re in North Texas and are interested in learning about evidence-based treatment that uses the current understanding of brain plasticity, our team at Dallas Drug Treatment Centers can help. Call us at +1(214) 935-2287 to discuss your treatment options.