Our understanding of how addiction operates on the brain continues to develop. In a recent round of research, scientists learned that addicted people may actually have difficulty knowing when pleasurable experiences are going to occur, prompting compulsive behaviour.

Addiction and the Brain’s Reward Centre


  • Addicts may have problems learning when to expect a reward.
  • New research suggests addicted brains may have difficulty anticipating rewarding experiences:

New research continues to teach us more about addiction and how it operates on the brain. We now understand that addicted brains are actually wired differently than their non-addicted counterparts, and this is what causes someone to seek out harmful substances or processes to their own detriment. In a recent study, researchers believe they’ve demonstrated that addicted brains even have difficulty anticipating rewards or pleasurable experiences. What does this new information mean for the future of addiction treatment?

Addiction Is a Brain-Based Disease

In recent years, our understanding of addiction and how it operates on the brain has developed dramatically. The fact that certain substances have the potential for addiction has long been understood. However, scientists have only recently begun to understand the mechanism through which the brain actually becomes addicted.

Up until the 1930s, it was assumed that those with an addiction were morally flawed. They persistently sought their substance of choice repeatedly – and despite the negative consequences that came with it – due to a lack of willpower. But now we know that this view of addiction is not only incorrect – it’s also fundamentally unhelpful in helping addicted people enter recovery.

Today, we know that addiction is a chronic, brain-based disease. It operates on the brain’s reward centre and makes physical changes to its circuitry. In the same way that cardiovascular disease strains and damages the heart, addiction impairs the brain and makes it much more difficult for someone to abstain from their substance or process of choice.

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How Addiction Rewires the Brain’s Reward Centre

Thanks to breakthroughs in brain-imaging technology – particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neurologists are now able to get a much clearer view of how the brain operates. In regards to the brain’s reward centre, we’ve learned that the brain registers all pleasurable experiences in the same way: through the release of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine.

When one undergoes a pleasurable experience, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens. This is a cluster of nerve cells located below the cerebral cortex and is the part of the brain we’re referring to when speaking of its pleasure or reward centre.

For a time, the scientific community assumed that the sense of pleasure triggered by substance abuse was enough to drive someone to addiction. But we now understand that the process is even more sophisticated than previously thought. The latest theory is that dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter called glutamate to create reward-related memories.

This is an important feature of the brain that has helped our species survive. Experiences like eating and sex, which are crucial to our survival, register as pleasurable and are then are linked to powerful memories that drive us to seek those experiences out again. This is a healthy way to ensure that we continue to take care ourselves and reproduce. But in the context of addiction, this learning process can have devastating effects.

When one is repeatedly exposed to an addictive substance, neurons in the reward centre begin communicating with the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for planning tasks and carrying them out. In such a way, the brain goes beyond registering pleasure and begins seeking it out. This is where drug-seeking and other types of addictive behaviour come into play.

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This is Your Brain on Drugs

Our understanding of addiction continues to expand, and recent research has shed even more light on how this learning process works. In a study conducted at Radboud University Medical Centre, researchers found that addicts may even have problems learning when to expect a reward.

The study in question was actually a meta-analysis that combined the findings of 25 previous studies. It spanned upwards of 1,200 people who suffered from addiction to substances including nicotine, alcohol and narcotics. It also included some people with a process addiction to gambling.

It found that addicted people had greater difficulty anticipating when they would receive a monetary reward than those who did not have an addiction. This registered as decreased activity in the striatum, which is part of the brain’s reward centre.

Perhaps even more telling, the striatum in the addicted brains showed a stronger response than in non-addicted brains when the person actually received the monetary reward. Researchers interpret this as surprise, which could very well mean that the brain began with lower expectations. In other words, it wasn’t expecting a pleasurable experience to begin with.

This suggests that addiction hijacks the brain and disrupts the learning process to an even greater extent than previously thought. When one is unable to predict when to expect a reward or pleasurable experience, this makes it all the more difficult for them to choose not to use the substance or engage in the addictive process.

Arnt Schellekens, a researcher who worked on the study, believes these new findings could help us create more effective addiction treatment methods in the future. “We want to compare the reactions to various types of rewards such as money, social rewards or drugs,” he said, “and also see how those reactions change over time. We are convinced that addiction treatment will benefit from a better understanding of the brain mechanisms that contribute to addiction.”

The Edge’s Innovative Treatment Programme Retrains Addicted Brains

Today, we know that all addiction operates on the brain in essentially the same way. To effectively treat it, we must retrain the brain to seek out healthy, pleasurable experiences rather than those derived through the use of a substance or engagement in an addiction process or behaviour. This is a long and difficult process, but it can be done. We see it regularly at The Edge addiction treatment centre.

Our addiction counsellors work with young men between the ages of 18 and 28 who have had their own brains hijacked by addiction. We combine cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with one-on-one counselling and physical training to help our participants ‘rewire’ their reward centres. Our ground-breaking treatment process is transforming young lives.

If you would like to learn more about how our treatment specialists can help you, please don’t hesitate to contact us today.