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The human brain is a miracle – there is nothing on earth that comes close to its capabilities. Although the brain and the heart are the only two organs that can’t regenerate, our brain can form new connections and pathways. Neuroplasticity is this amazing ability of our neural networks to grow and reorganize – to change and adapt as a result of experiences.
Until recently, it was thought that neuroplasticity stops after about 25, but with new research, we now know that it isn’t all downhill from there. Neuroplasticity can be facilitated by physical exercise, paying attention, and learning new things.
Physical exercise that increases blood flow to the brain is now a no-brainer. Paying attention is when we are doing something that is not out of habit – when we switch off autopilot and pay attention to what is happening. This is called mindfulness. Learning new things and being open to change becomes harder the older we get – and it will become increasingly more difficult if we don’t intentionally challenge ourselves mentally.
But what happens when drugs – any drug really, but drugs/substances of abuse are my topic here – enter the scene? Neuroplasticity then becomes the facilitator of addiction as our brain learns to adapt to the new stimulus, increasingly over time.
Dr. Maria Mavrikaki explains it this way in the Harvard Health Blog:
“Our first decision to use a drug may be triggered by curiosity, circumstances, personality, and stressful life events. This first drug exposure increases the release of a molecule (neurotransmitter) called dopamine, which conveys the feeling of reward. The increased changes in dopamine levels in the brain reward system can lead to further neuroplasticity following repeated exposure to drugs of abuse; these neuroplasticity changes are also fundamental characteristics of learning. Experience-dependent learning, including repeated drug use, might increase or decrease the transmission of signals between neurons. Neuroplasticity in the brain’s reward system following repeated drug use leads to more habitual and (in vulnerable people) more compulsive drug use, where people ignore the negative consequences. Thus, repeated exposure to drugs of abuse creates experience-dependent learning and related brain changes, which can lead to maladaptive patterns of drug use.”(1)
In her article in The Washington Post, December 1, 2017, Dr. Sandra Block (a neurologist) gives further evidence as seen on EEG’s on the changes to the brain that opioids (and similarly, other drugs of abuse) cause:
“Neurologically speaking, opioids are crafty. They turn the brain’s own electricity against it, rewiring connections in an endless feedback loop for more drugs. They trick the brain into a death trap, as users chase the chemical bliss from the drugs with more drugs. Acute opioid usage (that is, the high itself) translates into slowing on the EEG. Usually, such an effect is transient, carefully monitored by an anesthesiologist during surgery, for instance. But when the patient becomes the anesthesiologist, the cycle can become lethal…the opioids overwhelm the brain’s respiratory center, causing cardiac arrest… I’m seeing brain death in people who haven’t lived their lives yet, whose brains haven’t even fully developed, brains that are literally killing themselves for drugs.”(2)
Brain death in people who haven’t lived their lives yet. Our amazing elastic and electric brains. Short circuited and rewired. The good news in this bleak report is that the very same neuroplasticity can help rewire the addicted brain and return it to health and a hopeful future. See one woman’s amazing story, below. (3) But it will take time and effort. Our best efforts then should be working on preventing the damage in the first place.
1.HARVARD HEALTH BLOG
Brain plasticity in drug addiction: Burden and benefit
June 26, 2020 By Maria Mavrikaki, PhD
2. What the opioid epidemic looks like on the screen of a brain scan
3. Neuroplasticity: How I Survived Psychosis and Jail
MAR. 08, 2021 By Victoria Harris, MD, MPH