The Prefrontal Cortex and Addiction

Chemical addiction is classified as a mental illness, such that addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways.

An addiction disturbs a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires and substitutes new priorities connected with using drugs or alcohol. The resulting compulsive behaviors that override the ability to control impulses despite the consequences are similar to hallmarks of other mental illnesses.

Signs of Prefrontal Cortex Damage

  • Studies around problems in the brains prefrontal cortex have been associated with Impulsive action; a trait of addictive behavior.
  • Lack of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex is also associated with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
  • Lack of serotonin is a common problem with juveniles who lash out.

Some believe that impulsive behavior says more about an addicts approach to their addiction rather than the addiction itself. If one asked, “Why would anyone use drugs knowing that they lead to suffering?”  The impulsiveness argument is a good answer, because it suggests that the thinking person is not in control, which reinforces the argument that the addict is powerless.

Signs of Addictive Behavior

  • Addicts differ in their capacity to exercise judgment and inhibit impulses.
  • The brain’s prefrontal cortex helps to determine the adaptive value of pleasure recorded by the nucleus accumbens and checks the urge to take the drug when it would be unwise.
  • If the prefrontal cortex is not functioning properly, an addictive drug has more power to monopolize the reward circuit.


  • Recent research shows that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in adolescence, which could explain why we so often develop addictions at that time of life.
  • A person who does not become a smoker before age 21 will probably never be addicted to nicotine.
  • Antisocial personalities also have deficiencies in prefrontal functioning.

Read more about addiction.

Recovering from substance use disorders is a challenging journey that feels more doable in an environment that tends to each individual’s complex needs and strengths. Our goal is to foster a treatment experience that is built on compassion, hope, and caring, and fueled by excellence in the provision of evidence-based and trauma-informed care.

– - Anonymous