Why does drinking alcohol have such profound effects on thought, mood, and behaviour? Why does alcohol dependence develop and persist in some people and not in others?

Neuroscience is starting to address those questions and scientists are better understanding how alcohol changes the brain. The brain is made up of a delicate balance of chemicals and adding alcohol the brain starts to adapt to those changes, affecting behaviour.
When the brain is exposed to alcohol it may become tolerant and need more alcohol. When someone continues to drink heavily this can lead to dependence. Chronic exposure to high doses of alcohol produces counter adaptive neural changes that affect motivation and drive subsequent alcohol-seeking behaviour.

The reward pathway

Alcohol, like any drug, alters the brain’s reward pathway by causing dramatic changes to the synapses in the brain once the alcohol enters the body. It bypasses the stimulus required by the five senses, although taste and smell may be involved. The brain’s reward pathway is directly accessed, providing an intense sensation of pleasure.

Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, is the state in which a person engages in compulsive behaviour even if they have to face negative consequences. Due to the increased levels of dopamine in the reward pathway, there is a loss of control pertaining to self-limiting the addictive substance.

Alcoholism does more than affect the reward pathway of the brain; it can adversely affect the long-term health of the brain. Other neurotransmitters are affected by alcohol’s presence in the body. Alcohol use and abuse can impair learning as well as cognitive function, higher brain function (problem solving and decision making), as well as memory and movement.

Contributing factors to addiction

There is growing evidence of the brain’s vulnerability to addiction but that is just part of the problem. When treating alcohol addiction we need to also look at other contributing factors. These other factors include:

  • Genetics
  • Environmental factors
  • Early developmental factors
  • Stressful life events
  • Dual mental disorder such as depression or anxiety.

Therapy at Horizon Rehab

Education groups at Horizon Rehab involve sessions on the neuroscience behind addiction as we believe that having this information can help you to learn about your condition.

We can look at which coping skills may help in sobriety as you understand that there is much more going on in our brains than you may first realise.

To succeed in long term sobriety then we need to keep up with the research and include relevant interventions within our recovery programme.

Through counselling and group therapy you can start to understand the contributing factors and explore these in a safe environment with a trained professional.

Our programme has been designed with all this in mind. We have an intensive programme of learning and understanding addiction and find the coping skills that will support you in long-term sobriety.

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