The Brain in Recovery: What Happens When You Quit?
The research is still out on whether the human brain can ever fully recover from an addiction. After all, many addicts report having cravings for years after they complete treatment. This is likely due to the fact that cravings are closely tied to the memory of using. Unfortunately, some memories don’t go away.
Even if a cocaine addict lost their job, severed important relationships and caused major problems for themselves while using, their brain will always relate the drug with pleasure on some level. A triggering event, such as the image of someone else enjoying cocaine on television, could cause them to crave the drug years after they quit.
The human brain is resilient enough to recover from damage imposed on it by the overflow of neurotransmitters created by drugs. This is not to say, of course, that any severe brain damage caused by the drug (“wet brain” from excessive drinking, for example) will be magically cured once the addict stops using. It is to say, though, that an addict who suffers no long-term damage during the time that they use will eventually have normal dopamine levels after they’ve been clean for a few years.
However, because the brain stores memories of drug use, former addicts are able to re-enter addiction without any buildup. A person who becomes addicted to cigarettes would need to smoke for an extended period of time before they became chemically dependent on nicotine. An individual who quit smoking for 5 years but relapsed on cigarettes, however, could find themselves addicted again after a single smoke.