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Neurological Factors: A Root Cause of Addiction

By August 1, 2022Recovery

What are Neurological Factors of Addiction?

NIDA explains how a brain disorder occurs when repeated drug use leads to changes in the neural pathways that control pleasures/reward, stress, decision-making, impulse control, learning and memory, and other cognitive functions. When there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, such as decreased levels of dopamine, it becomes difficult to have motivation. Motivation plays a key role in the pleasure/reward system. Motivation is the neurological factor in the driver’s seat of this reward/pleasure system.

The Addiction Cycle Happens

Three Stages of the Cycle

The surgeon generals report has well-supported evidence that shows that the addiction process involves a three-stage cycle:

  • Binge/intoxication
  • Withdrawal/negative affect
  • Preoccupation/anticipation.

This cycle is what causes the neurological factors to cause repeat addiction and long-term use. The 3 stages (getting the substance, doing the substance, getting excited to do it again) become more severe as an individual continues to use it.

The repetition of this cycle produces dramatic changes in brain function that reduce a person’s ability to control their impulses, make decisions, have motivation, and more.

Need for Dopamine

When there is a lack of dopamine in the brain, a person is more likely to stay stuck in addiction because the quickest avenue to dopamine build-up is the one they have created with the substance they rely on.

Dopamine is the molecule that controls the pleasure pathways that deal with motivation, cognitive learning, and movement. Dopamine cells fired upon the first exposure to a novel reward, but repeated exposure to dopamine caused the neurons to stop firing upon reward consumption and fire instead when they were exposed to stimuli that were predictive of the reward (Schultz et al., 1997).

There is a saying that neurologists commonly use about brain cells. Dopamine cells that fire together, wire together. When these cells fire off in pair of drugs such as meth or cocaine, they make a connection to that ‘high’ and work toward that high reinforcement value again and again. These two drugs create 1000x the amount of dopamine than what the brain typical fires in the pleasure/reward system.

Drugs like these are referred to as incentive salience because a large amount of dopamine is released (Koob, 2015). There are large amounts of activity in that area of the brain which insinuates reward/pleasure so the experience is registered as one to be repeated (Koob, 2015). The brain marks the experience as a high value which is why it is so difficult to approach once marked and conditioned.

How to Heal Neurological Factors in the Brain to Accelerate Healing

Once the user stops using, the brain begins to recover without these large amounts of dopamine firing. Recovering the balance of chemicals affected by the substance use over time like dopamine can take some time.

  • Do simple tasks to improve brain health such as getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet.
  • Raise dopamine levels in the brain by exercising, listening to music, dancing, and meditating.
  • Types of therapies with cognitive skills, mindfulness, and motivational interviewing are great tools to use.

Try a Dopamine Detox

This is a great video by Niklas Christl with some great research and tools to detox from dopamine sources like social media, porn, alcohol, music, and junk food for 7 days. He speaks on how he recognized massive benefits like boosted productivity, mental clarity, and overall calmness. It is an awesome watch!


Neurological disorders are commonly developed as the addiction of a person worsens. Dopamine depletion is inevitable when addiction occurs. It takes self-awareness and long-term commitment to revive the natural chemical balance of dopamine and other issues that addiction brings.

Creating small goals around simple, everyday actions is the best way to make sustainable progress. Consulting a professional will help bring awareness to what is in need of attention based on your individual needs.










Koob, George F. “The dark side of emotion: the addiction perspective.” European journal of pharmacology vol. 753 (2015): 73-87. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2014.11.044

Schultz W, Dayan P, Montague PR. A neural substrate of prediction and reward. Science. 1997;275:1593–1599.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2016 Nov. CHAPTER 2, THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, AND ADDICTION. Available from:

Volkow. (2019). The Neuroscience of Drug Reward and Addiction | Physiological Reviews. Retrieved 15 July 2021, from