Years ago, scientists and medical doctors believed that once the brain was damaged, that was it; it could not be repaired in any way. However, breakthroughs in the study of the brain have proven that the brain actually has significant ability to repair and rewire itself. Though individual cells or even portions of the brain may be damaged beyond repair, the brain will attempt at making new connections or “neural pathways” to create what are essentially “work-arounds” for the damaged area. The effort of the brain to heal itself is called neuroplasticity – neuro for brain/nerve/neuron and plasticity for moldability.
What role does neuroplasticity play in addiction treatment?
We all have habits. Addiction, no matter how you personally view it, is a type of habit; it is a behavior that a person engages in over and over again to the detriment of his health, obligations and relationships. While we are developing a habit, the brain creates a path to support that habit. Imagine this as a process similar to lifting a weight. As you lift a weight more and more often, your arm becomes stronger in response to that habit. The weight becomes easier to lift over time. In addicts, we can explain their behavior as developing an “addiction habit,” which eventually becomes so strong that its pursuit overrides other activities. The addict can’t stop using for his son’s wedding any more than he can stop breathing because he wills it. The behavior is too ingrained in the brain for will to circumvent it.
Because of this process in the brain, we can explain addiction recovery as a neuroplastic event. The brain was trained to do one thing – abuse drugs or alcohol or gambling – almost to the exclusion of everything else. Treatment interrupts that pattern. We begin to give the brain a new pattern and develop a pathway that supports a healthier, addiction-free life. With treatment, including intensive one-on-one psychotherapy and holistic, whole-health activities, we are able to create in the brain what one might call a “recovery” loop, a behavioral pattern in which the brain learns to find contentment and happiness in recovery. The things that are designed to give us pleasure – family, friends, children, a job well done – begin to do so again. Literally, we retrain the brain to enjoy life. This is the beginning of meaningful life change.