The Addicted Brain and How to Change it by Keerthy Sunder, MD and Jeffrey Bohnen, BSc

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Have you ever made a decision while the voice in your head protested it was a bad idea? If you answered yes, this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It’s quite normal for our brains to experience conflicting drives. Moreover, you can take control of this process. You can take action to change your brain.

The brain considers a multitude of potential actions when making decisions, but it prefers behaviors that have been linked to reward. Dopamine is the chemical messenger used by the brain to assess reward. Dopamine is released in response to natural rewards such as food and sex, but it can also be artificially stimulated through the use of addictive drugs. Either way, behaviors associated with reward become enforced, forming habits. Crucially, the brain cannot distinguish between “good” and “bad” habits.

Researchers believe the semi-permanent nature of addiction is based on neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to change itself. However, this arrow points in both directions. Just like your brain can be changed for the worse, it can be changed for the better.

So what can I do to help change it for the better?

Neurofeedback is an emerging treatment that helps the brain “rewire” itself. It works by using a brain-computer interface to display your brain activity on a computer monitor. This display is visible to your brain during the session, and thus operates as a neural “mirror” by reflecting electrical activity across targeted brain regions. In essence, this procedure allows your brain to observe its own activity.

Research has indicated that our brain regulates itself based on self-relevant information. Neurofeedback can augment your brain’s informational network, thereby improving your capacity for self-regulation. This helps your brain recognize and correct maladaptive patterns of activity, including addiction.

That sounds cool … but how does it work?

Imagine yourself fixing your hair in the morning. Odds are, you pictured yourself in front of a mirror. Now, imagine fixing your hair without that mirror. Yes, you are still capable of this task … but it’s more difficult. The additional input provided by the mirror facilitates an easier and more effective approach. Neurofeedback may work in a similar fashion, as it provides your brain with useful information and improves self-regulation.

That makes sense, but can you be more specific?

Scientists are working on discovering the specific mechanisms. However, one promising explanation is that neurofeedback may work through “astrocytes”. Astrocytes are cells which regulate blood flow, energy storage, and neurotoxicity. Basically, these are your brain’s “shot-callers.” They can choose to nurture neurons or mark them for destruction. Researchers have proposed that neurofeedback helps astrocytes prune the pathways in your brain and improve the connections.

Neuroplasticity is an ongoing process. Remember, your brain is capable of change! Of course, you can support your brain with frequent exercise, sufficient sleep, and a healthy diet. In addition, supplements such as fish oil, vitamin D, turmeric and ashwagandha have been linked to improved brain function. If you’re curious about neurofeedback, schedule a consultation with our practice at

For any additional questions, feel free to contact us at

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