How Depression and Addiction Affect The Brain In Similar Ways

Most people know that addiction and depression affect the mind and body. What people may not know is that these two conditions, which are quite different, can have similar effects on the brain. Although this may be surprising to some, recent studies show that both addiction and depression can change the brain’s structure and the way it functions. Understanding these effects can help experts better understand depression and addiction and dual diagnoses. Exploring these effects can also help experts heal the brain, significantly improving individuals’ physical and mental health and overall quality of life.

Depression and The Brain

Depression is a mood disorder that causes prolonged periods of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest. Even though the cause of depression isn’t fully understood, experts believe chemical imbalances in the brain may cause the condition. As such, depression can have profound effects on the brain.

The brains of people living with depression tend to have low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, chemical messengers that regulate mood. Depression can also reduce the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. When this part of the brain shrinks, concentration, executive functioning, remembering things, and making decisions can become challenging.

Depression also changes the way the brain processes information and responds to stress. These changes can make it difficult for people with depression to think clearly and cope with stressors in their everyday life.

Areas of The Brain Most Affected By Depression

Studies show that depression primarily impacts parts of the brain that process information and regulate emotion. These brain regions include the:

  • Prefrontal cortex. This brain area is responsible for cognitive actions such as planning and decision making.
  • Hippocampus. This part of the brain is involved in learning and memory. When stress occurs, this part of the brain releases cortisol. When the brain has excessive cortisol for prolonged periods, new neurons stop growing in the hippocampus, causing shrinkage. A smaller hippocampus increases the likelihood of memory loss.
  • Amygdala. This almond-shaped gland regulates emotion. Excessive cortisol in the brain causes the amygdala to swell. When this part of the brain becomes enlarged and overactive, it causes sleep disturbances and decreased activity levels.

Depression can cause changes in all three areas, resulting in difficulty thinking clearly, problems with memory and concentration, and extreme emotional fluctuations.

Addiction and The Brain

Like depression, addiction is a chronic condition that changes how the brain works. The changes begin by altering the way the brain processes pleasure. Usually, when a person experiences pleasure, the brain releases dopamine, creating feelings of satisfaction. However, addiction changes the way the dopamine system works. When this change happens, the brain experiences pleasure from drugs, not actually pleasurable activities.

Addiction also changes the way nerve cells in the brain work. Once the brain becomes accustomed to addictive substances, individuals need more substances to get the same initial effect. This increased tolerance causes nerve cells in the brain to trigger withdrawal symptoms when the brain’s craving for substances isn’t met.

Over time, addiction changes and damages the structure of the brain, causing memory, learning, and decision-making difficulties. Addiction also changes how the brain processes information, disrupting cognitive functioning. This change makes resisting drugs difficult, which leads to impulsive and compulsive behavior.

Brain Areas Most Affected By Addiction

Addiction causes changes in the brain that make it difficult for people to control their impulses. Some of the brain areas most affected by addiction include:

  • Prefrontal Cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, planning, impulse control, and emotion regulation. When addiction changes this part of the brain, people have difficulty resisting cravings.
  • Limbic System. This brain system is responsible for processing emotions and motivating individuals to seek out rewards.
  • Amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for fear and anxiety responses. In people with addiction, the amygdala becomes hypersensitive to rewards, which increases the likelihood of drug use even despite adverse consequences.
  • Hippocampus. This part of the brain helps individuals form and recall memories.
  • Striatum. The striatum regulates movement and coordinates cognitive and emotional processes. People with addiction often have trouble forming new memories and learning from their mistakes. This effect can make it difficult for them to break out of the cycle of addiction.

Addiction alters the way these areas of the brain function, making it difficult for an individual to resist impulses and cravings.

How Depression and Addiction Have Similar Effects On The Brain

Changes in brain structure and function characterize both depression and addiction. For example, both depression and addiction cause abnormal neurotransmitter levels. These abnormal levels can affect mood, energy levels, and motivation. Additionally, both depression and addiction can lead to changes in how the brain processes information. These changes can make it difficult for people to think clearly and make sound decisions.

The similar effects depression and addiction have on the brain can cause:

  • Cognitive Decline. Addiction negatively impacts the brain in many ways, including reducing brain volume, impairing executive function, and causing inflammation. The brain damage caused by addiction can also lead to memory problems, difficulty learning new information, and impaired decision-making. Similarly, depression reduces the amount of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which can cause memory problems, difficulty concentrating, brain fog, and other cognitive impairments. Depression can also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
  • Poor Emotional Regulation and Distress. Changes in the brain that result from depression can make it difficult to think clearly, make decisions, and manage stress. Addiction affects different brain parts that control pleasure, judgment, and self-control. Addiction can also cause problems in a person’s life, including financial difficulties, relationship problems, and health problems that can cause emotional distress.
  • Poor Judgment and Decision Making. Addiction changes the way the brain processes pleasure, reward, and motivation. As a result, individuals with addiction have poor judgment and are often unable to control their drug use despite negative consequences. Depression can also cause impaired judgment, making it difficult for individuals to make decisions and think clearly.
  • Loss of Interest. Addiction often leads to a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable and social isolation. Depression can also make individuals lose interest in activities that were once pleasurable. Both depression and addiction interfere with neurotransmitters that help regulate mood, motivation, and interest.

Restoring The Brain To Optimal Levels Of Health

Addiction and depression can both have a severe impact on the health of your brain. However, there is hope. Both addiction and depression are treatable conditions that can be managed with the help of a professional. Our compassionate and experienced professionals can help restore the health of your brain so you can start living the life you deserve.

Contact us today if you’re ready to begin the journey.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

qEEG/Brain Mapping

Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients’ brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.


This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

Spravato Therapy

We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)

Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

Individual Therapy

Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

Group/Family Therapy

Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space.

Contact StoneRidge Centers

5940 E. Copper Hill Dr. Ste B & E, Prescott Valley, AZ. 86314

We exercise progressive, leading brain science in our treatment approach for patients in our community and across the country who are struggling with mental health and addiction challenges.