Addiction: The Brain Hijacker

“At first, addiction is maintained by pleasure, but the intensity of this pleasure gradually diminishes, and the addiction is then maintained by the avoidance of pain.” – Frank Tallis

Watch Episode 1: Addiction The Hijacker


The Addiction Policy has started a new video series, labeled simply: The Addiction Series. Their goal with these short-animated videos is to turn the science of addiction into stories that stick. The first episode is the Hijacker, the 3-minute video you learn precisely how addiction happens. How it hijacks the brain.

What are Substances Hijacking in the Brain?

Substance use disorders affect tissue function in two of the main parts of the brain. They affect the limbic system, which is responsible for basic survival instincts. Basic survival instincts such as food, water, sex, shelter, and providing for our offspring are all located in the limbic system. When someone performs any of these tasks, the brain releases dopamine, a chemical that works in the brain’s reward system.

The other area of the brain that is affected is the prefrontal cortex, which is where decision-making and impulse control live. The release of dopamine when a person performs basic survival skills correlates to the prefrontal cortex, which helps the brain to continue making the decisions to do those rewarding behaviors.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

Substance use activates the dopamine process in the brain. It causes the brain to release more dopamine than natural rewards do. When someone repeatedly uses the substance, it hijacks the brain. It starts to believe that the substances are the most important thing needed for survival.

This leads to addiction, and the brain is now wiring itself only to feel pleasure when the substance is present in a person’s body. Over time tolerance is built. This means more and more of the substance in needed to reach the level of reward the brain is accustomed. This causes the brain to overload its circuits, the brain chemistry becomes imbalanced, and it only worsens.
Since the dopamine released in the “survival” part of the brain that affects the decision-making and impulse control in the prefrontal cortex, it turns into a tug of war. The brain is saying that more of this drug is needed to survive. It depletes the ability to make sound decisions and lessens a person’s self-control. The craving or “jonesing” is directly related to this; it’s an impulse. The brain is saying that this impulse is necessary to their survival.

This is what makes addiction a brain disease. There are outward physical effects of substance use as well. That is where the signs and symptoms come into play. This is usually when others around the person notice that there is a problem. Weight loss, erratic behavior, lying and stealing are all things everyone else can see. What they can’t see is what happens in a person’s brain.

The Disease of Addiction

Videos like this will still be controversial. People will still try to stand behind the stigma of addiction being a moral failing. The choice versus disease debate will still go on even with education at their fingertips. It’s an unfortunate reality because others only see the outward effects of substance use disorders. Addiction is a disease, and it is stealing people young and old alike every day.

The way addiction is shown in the short is the perfect way to describe it. A black monster that steals your brain and turns it against you. There is a solution, and there is hope. With options today like treatment and 12-step fellowships addiction is manageable. There have been brain scans done on those in recovery that show over time the tissue in the limbic system and prefrontal cortex can get better.

If you or a loved one is struggling with the disease of addiction, please reach out to us today at 855-448-3588. We know the struggle of living with addiction; you can heal. We can help.