We are always excited when we hear that major, recognized institutions are taking time to research addictions. And this past week, one of the most distinguished universities in the country released some very interesting information on the subject. Via their edu website, Harvard Medical School shared a fascinating analysis on dependencies and how they relate back to the brain.
The information was released via author Maria Mavrikaki, PhD. Her overview article touched on the concept of cranial neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt in response to different experiences. The experience here, of course, being substance abuse; either through drugs or alcohol.
The piece starts out highlighting the benefits of cranial neuroplasticity and how it can be applied to our daily lives. This technique is what allows us to learn new languages, solve complex mathematical equations or even excel in athletics. The flipside, though, concerns “non-adventageous learned behaviors” and this same process when it is applied to drug or alcohol abuse.
The interesting thing about the Harvard data is that it approaches consistent using as a learned behavior, much like picking up a new language (for example). The brain, in essence, becomes rewired and adaptable to the consistent habits of taking substances.
The term that keeps surfacing in Dr. Mavrikaki’s overview is “plasticity.” Much like a piece of clay that can be molded and changed, our brain picks up the addiction cues and eventually believes them to be normal processes. That can be dangerous, but (as the article goes on to explain) there is also a benefit of this theory. Knowing how malleable our brains our, they can quickly adapt out of an dependency; if we allow them to do so.
“Our brain’s plastic nature suggests that we can change our behaviors throughout our lives by learning new skills and habits,” Dr. Mavrikaki explained in her article. “Learning models support that overcoming addiction can be facilitated by adopting new cognitive modifications.”
She goes on to praise the techniques of recovery and how many in our field use unique methods to train the brain away from addictive behaviors. So, in essence, understanding the “plasticity” of our brains is actually quite encouraging for those who feel that they cannot steer away from destructive habits.
The piece ends with a very optimistic note that anyone battling an addiction should take to heart.
“Our brain is plastic, and this trait helps us learn new skills and retrain our brain,” she concludes. “As the brain can change in a negative way as observed in drug addiction, the brain can also change in a positive way when we adopt skills learned in therapy and form new, healthier habits.”