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Why Brain Plasticity Matters in SUD

hand pointing to brain structure

While we have made many advances in artificial intelligence and computing technology, the human brain remains more powerful than manmade computers, at least in some aspects. While computers are overall faster and more accurate at mathematical calculations, our brains dominate them when it comes to learning and memory.1

How our brains learn, retrieve, and store information is also very different from how these functions are implemented in computers. Our brain cells can change their functions and create new connections based on experience. Our brains can even create multiple pathways and process data in parallel. Computers, by contrast, are still unable to do these things as efficiently or effectively as our brains.

This wonderfully complex ability of our brains to adapt has major implications for people with mental health issues. Below we’ll explore some of the ways this ability, called “brain plasticity”, can be a double-edged sword when it comes to substance use disorder (SUD). Get in touch with Boston Drug Treatment Centers to find help for drug or alcohol issues today.

What is Brain Plasticity?

Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change in response to experiences. To put it simply, plasticity is what allows the human brain to learn. It is what allows us to develop complex skills as well as deep-rooted beliefs. It is also behind different learned behaviors.2

Science has long understood that the brain has something to do with learning. Likewise, different theories of learning date back millennia. However, up until recently, there wasn’t any noninvasive technology that would allow researchers to directly observe the brain as it functioned.

This has changed in the past few generations with the introduction of brain imaging techniques that allowed researchers to observe the brain as it learned and experienced stimuli. From there, it was observed that human brains were changed by the process of learning. It was even discovered that adults could grow new brain cells, something that was not previously believed to be possible.3

How What Role Does it Play in SUD?

Brain plasticity likely plays a role in how SUD develops.4 Substance misuse can alter the normal functioning of the brain. In most cases, drug and alcohol use can interfere with the brain’s pleasure and reward process by altering levels of dopamine.5

Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter that allows different brain cells to communicate with each other. When dopamine levels are elevated, this brings feelings of motivation and pleasure. Learning new things and other focused activities increase available dopamine in the brain, with excess amounts being naturally absorbed. However, substance misuse tends to do the same while reducing the ability to regulate overall dopamine levels.

Over time, continued drug or alcohol misuse can cause the brain to create connections dependent on the influx of these substances. This may leave individuals with withdrawal symptoms when they do not have access to their substance of choice. When this happens, the affected individual has likely developed a substance use disorder. Compulsive behaviors like excessive gambling, gaming, and social media use likely get reinforced through a similar mechanism.

Why Brain Plasticity is Crucial in SUD Recovery

While the brain’s ability to change is what reinforces the negative behaviors associated with SUD, it is also what allows affected individuals to make a full recovery. Generally speaking, this is primarily done through psychotherapy as well as by giving the individual time to heal, away from their substance of choice. Depending on the substances involved or the presence of comorbidities, there may also be medication-assisted therapy to help the patient be more comfortable and functional during recovery.

One thing to remember is that brain plasticity is a slow process, especially in adults. Similar to the processes involved in learning, it takes months or years for the brain of a person with SUD to readjust. The recovery period is typically far longer than the time it takes to complete a rehab program. For many people with SUD, it means that post-rehab care is essential for a complete recovery.6

Activities That May Help Regrow Brain Connections

A few activities have been shown to stimulate the creation of new connections in the brain, attracting the interest of SUD treatment professionals. Some activities shown to help speed up the growth of new brain connections include the following:

  • Meditation. From being a fringe practice a half-century ago, meditation has been widely practiced in rehab programs all over the world. Multiple studies link different meditative practices to the growth of neural connections, confirming decades of observation by rehab clinicians.7
  • Avoiding Stressful Activities. Prolonged stress is associated with a shrinking of the brain cells associated with learning.8 Avoiding activities that cause stress can therefore help improve your brain’s ability to create new connections and recover from SUD.
  • Regular Exercise. There is strong evidence pointing to exercise as an important factor for maintaining brain health throughout our lives. A recent study shows that regular physical exercise is critical for brain cell growth in adults, which may be critical for older individuals recovering from years of substance misuse.9

Find Help for SUD

While the human brain’s capacity to learn is closely linked to how we develop drug and alcohol problems, it is this very same ability that makes full recovery possible for everyone. If you suspect that you or someone close to you has a problem with substance misuse, our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers is ready to help. Call now for a listing of Boston rehabs that offer evidence-based treatments and more.


  1. Bassett, D. S., & Gazzaniga, M. S. (2011). Understanding complexity in the human brain. Trends in cognitive sciences15(5), 200–209.
  2. Kalivas, P. W., & O’Brien, C. (2008). Drug addiction as a pathology of staged neuroplasticityNeuropsychopharmacology33(1), 166-180.
  3. Xue, G., Chen, C., Lu, Z. L., & Dong, Q. (2010). Brain Imaging Techniques and Their Applications in Decision-Making Research. Xin li xue bao. Acta psychologica Sinica42(1), 120–137.
  4. Sampedro-Piquero, P., Santín, L. J., & Castilla-Ortega, E. (2019). Aberrant brain neuroplasticity and function in drug addiction: a focus on learning-related brain regionsBehavioral Neuroscience.
  5. Arias-Carrión, O., Stamelou, M., Murillo-Rodríguez, E., Menéndez-González, M., & Pöppel, E. (2010). Dopaminergic reward system: a short integrative review. International archives of medicine3, 24.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 10) Treatment and Recovery.
  7. Li, W., Howard, M. O., Garland, E. L., McGovern, P., & Lazar, M. (2017). Mindfulness treatment for substance misuse: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of substance abuse treatment75, 62–96.
  8. Touro University Worldwide. (2016). The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain.
  9. Saraulli, D., Costanzi, M., Mastrorilli, V., & Farioli-Vecchioli, S. (2017). The Long Run: Neuroprotective Effects of Physical Exercise on Adult Neurogenesis from Youth to Old Age. Current neuropharmacology15(4), 519–533.

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