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Treating the Addicted Brain

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - As efforts continue to battle the opioid epidemic, it's important to know how addiction affects the brain.

Drugs, especially opioids, flood the so-called "pleasure center" of the brain with a powerful surge of dopamine. Addiction is linked to the speed and intensity of that release.

In the 1930s, when studies on addictive behavior began, researchers believed people with addictions just had no willpower. Today, addiction is widely recognized as a chronic disease.

Recovery needs willpower, of course, but it also requires a number of strategies to break the cycle.

Gage Titlow, 24, is in the process of moving in to a new home. He's doing mundane things like making his bed and putting his clothes away. These are basic actions that fell by the wayside during the height of his addictive behavior.

Titlow is working to reach recovery from a 10-year addiction to drugs and alcohol.

"I was drinking at 14 or 15 years old, " Titlow said. "I have no explanation as to why. It was just, I'm having so much fun, but it's not fun. It's miserable."

Titlow is getting help from True Purpose Ministries in Blount County, which runs Dane's House. It's a halfway house for men like Titlow named for Dane McCoy. The lure of drugs led to his death of an overdose in 2014.

Dane McCoy's mother Jan is a force behind the effort to help others avoid the same fate as her son, who tried rehab several times at other places, allowed to go home before he was ready.

"His brain wasn't healed yet," Jan McCoy said. "But I didn't know that at the time. Today, I think I've learned that since he's passed."

At the center of treatment is the addicted brain.

"The first commitment is a year. We ask them to come in for a full year, talking about the brain. The brain needs that time to heal," Jeremy Graham, pastor and founder of True Purpose Ministries, said. "They need to come in and learn how they got this way and how to deal with their addiction."

Tim Hilton of Birmingham, Alabama is a national recovery advocate, working as a consultant for Bradford Healthcare Services. He travels the country to speak to groups about triggers in neurotransmitter pathways in the pleasure center of the brain, genetic predispositions, and the insidious damage opioids cause the brain.

"I think part of what we're seeing with the opioid crisis is - opioids have such a powerful impact on those pathways that they more quickly disregulate them. They do the damage more quickly. We saw the same things with the methamphetamine epidemic we had several years back so what happens is, an 18- or 19-year-old man uses heroin and no matter what his genetic predisposition, there's a high probability that 's going to very quickly disregulate the pathways and it's going to cause this reprogramming effect, " Hilton said.

Addiction is part of Titlow's family tree, although no one really talked about it. He's determined to stop the cycle.

"My grandfather was an alcoholic. His father, I'm not sure about. I believe my dad's oldest brother may have had a problem, I'm not sure. Yeah, those generational curses carry on but we have the power to stop that. It can stop with this generation. It's over with. It's not going to carry another generation."

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