Neuroplasticity and Recovery: How Your Brain Heals

The human body has an amazing ability to repair itself—even when highly complex organs are injured. Historically, scientists thought that our brains stopped developing after adolescence. They believed that, like height, this part of the body remained static unless it was damaged through injury or illness. Advances in neuroscience have taught us that this simply isn’t true. Thanks to neuroplasticity, it turns out it is possible to restore brain health after active addiction.

A Moldable Brain

The brain’s ability to change and adapt is called “neuroplasticity,” which means that it is more like soft modeling clay than a breakable ceramic mug. A more technical definition defines neuroplasticity as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions or connections.”

When the brain experiences trauma, it doesn’t crack or shatter. Instead, it remolds itself to adjust to its new reality. An example of neuroplasticity is when someone re-learns how to speak after having a stroke. Their mind “rewires,” developing new neural pathways to perform activities previously restricted to its damaged language center.

In everyday life, neuroplasticity allows us to learn new skills and develop bad habits. Our brains adapt to our environment, to our repeated behaviors and to external cues or stimuli. This adaptation can be beneficial (learning to regulate emotions during stressful situations), neutral (no change) or negative (developing powerful cravings for a certain drug).

Substance Use Disorder and the Brain

The brain is, essentially, an incredibly complex computer made up of neurons that communicate with one another. The neurons receive signals (from neurotransmitters) that allow for intricate communication between many different circuits, each with a unique function in our nervous system. The neurotransmitters are sent out to neighboring cells, and must cross a synapse (gap) in order to attach onto the receiving neuron, where their message is delivered (much like answering a phone call). These neurotransmitters are then recycled back to their “home” neuron and the communication ends (and the cell “hangs up the phone”).

Drugs get in the way of this communication by interfering with the way neurotransmitters are sent and received. Imagine you’re in a bad service area and you keep dropping your call or have trouble understanding what the other person is saying because the connection is choppy. Each drug has its own way of interfering. For example, cocaine causes large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released and also inhibits its reabsorption; this intensifies the feelings of pleasure from the drug.

Over time, minds adapt to the presence of drugs and alcohol through a phenomenon called negative neuroadaptation. This accounts for many of the symptoms of addiction. Addiction has been called “a disease of neuroplasticity” because substance use actually causes our brains to change their circuitry.

Some people are more vulnerable to addiction based on complex genetic and environmental factors. For example, in some people long-term alcohol use disrupts the ability to manage stress and emotions. As the reward pathways in our brain are altered, it can actually make it more difficult to control cravings, even after periods of abstinence, which can lead to increased risk of relapse.

Neuroplasticity Heals After Addiction

While drug use can alter the brain in maladaptive ways, neuroplasticity also plays a powerful role in recovery. The brain can heal and learn ways of coping with stress and controlling cravings by creating new neural pathways. Ongoing research is exploring ways to further use neuroplasticity to treat substance use disorders. As we gain insight into how drugs and alcohol impact the neurobiology of the brain, we are able to better understand relapse prevention.

There has been promising research around mindfulness and meditation. These findings indicate that mental exercises result in positive neuroadaptation. One study of a Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) program found that participants showed decreased days of substance use and heavy drinking at their 12-month follow up.

Psychotherapy has also been shown to alter the brain. Learning-based methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) harness the power of neuroplasticity to support recovery.

Other practices that have shown positive neuroadaptation include: music therapy, physical exercise, learning a new language, brain teasers such as sudoku and healthy sleep habits.

Leveraging Neuroplasticity for Sustained Recovery

At Cumberland Heights, we believe you recover not only by changing behavior but by changing your brain. Using the latest research, we employ practices that promote healthy neuroadaptation to support long-term recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, please contact us to start their recovery journey. Lasting change is possible.