Neuroscience—the science of understanding the brain and how it works—is developing and changing the way we treat addiction.
We once thought that nerves did not regenerate, that once a person suffered some sort of brain damage there was nothing that could be done to regain the lost brain function. New research has found that while some brain damage is profound, the brain does have the ability to recover some function on its own; it is malleable in ways we previously could not imagine. This ability of the brain to heal itself is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is defined as the brain’s ability to reorganize itself. This reorganization happens through the formation of new neural connections which “rewire” the brain. This rewiring happens throughout one’s life in many different contexts. The nerve cells of the brain can compensate, for example, for injury and disease. Scientists have discovered that the brain can even adjust its function in response to changes in the environment or developing situations.
Brain “healing” takes place when undamaged parts of the brain form new nerve endings to reconnect to nerves that were injured or severed. Undamaged nerves can also connect to other undamaged areas, forming new connections in the brain that did not exist previously. This can allow the brain to switch a particular function from a damaged area to an undamaged area. For example, if the functions of one side of the brain are damaged, the other hemisphere, through these newly generated neural pathways, make take on some of the “lost” functions. In this way, the brain compensates for damage. However, in order to connect and reconnect, the brain must be stimulated through activity.
There are many scientists who are researching neuroplasticity. One of these researchers is Dr. Dan Siegel of UCLA. Dr. Siegel uses an interdisciplinary approach to research, using findings from neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology and other fields to create a complex and complete picture of the mind. He uses this approach to help people understand how the mind works holistically so that they can then use that information to attain the highest levels of mental health possible. The process of helping people change the way their brains work in positive ways is what Dr. Siegel calls “mindsight,” and it is a learnable skill. The end result of this approach is “integration,” or the linking of different parts of a system to create or cultivate a sense of well-being. Integration is the ultimate goal behind whole health and holistic healing.
Neuroplasticity can have a tremendous impact on the field of holistic addiction recovery. As a result of their drug use, many substance abusers suffer profound brain damage. For example, people with alcohol-induced brain damage were once commonly referred to as “wet brains.” We believed that “wet brain” was a condition from which recovery was impossible. Now, however, with new inroads in neuroscience and new advancements in understanding neuroplasticity, we have tools which we can use to recover some of the brain function that we previously thought was lost forever. These advances are also encouraging for those who have co-occurring disorders, particularly those with milder forms of traumatic brain injury.
Addiction recovery itself is a neuroplastic event. The brain works in a very simple way. When you engage in a behavior, the neural pathways of the brain are strengthened around that behavior. In the same way that your muscles become stronger when you lift a heavy weight over and over, repeating the same behavior stimulates the brain in a particular way so that it becomes accustomed to the new behavior. With addiction, the pleasure centers of the brain are taken over as the addictive behavior is reinforced. The addictive pattern becomes so strong in the brain, and other connections get weaker, so that “happiness” or “pleasure” is only derived from the addictive pattern. The addict requires treatment to rewire the brain and normalize this process.
In treatment, various therapies are provided to the addict to help him rewire his brain, to create or strengthen different neural pathways. We help you rebuild your brain so that family, work successes, and social interactions become pleasurable events again. Further, we help you to develop an understanding of your brain and how it works to avoid relapse – because those old neural pathways are still there in your brain. If you begin using again, your brain says to itself, “This is a pattern I understand!” – and you’re right back where you once were, caught in the trap of addiction. Making strong neural pathways that are not part of the addictive process is an important part of recovery.
Addiction has very little to do with the drugs you ingest. If your problem was the drugs or alcohol (or sex or gambling or anything else), once you were detoxed from that drug, you would no longer have that problem. But because the problem of addiction rests in the brain and its functions, just eliminating the drug does not lead to complete recovery. We now know that behavior change leads to a change in brain function, which is the foundation of recovery.