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How Is Scientific Research Helping Our Understanding of Addiction?

How Is Scientific Research Helping Our Understanding of Addiction?

Scientific research has helped us understand addiction as a chronic brain disease that occurs because of the way drugs alter the brain

Earlier in history, people assumed that drug addiction was a matter of willpower. People thought that an addict could stop using drugs simply by choice and that addicts were morally reprehensible. This created much shame and secrecy among addicts even those who wanted to change but were afraid of the repercussions of asking for help. Fortunately, scientific research has shown that addiction is not a matter of choice or willpower. Research has changed the way addiction is viewed and treated.

Addiction As a Chronic Disease

Scientific research has discovered that addiction is a disease not the result of choosing to keep using drugs despite the negative consequences. Rather, addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes a person to keep seeking and using drugs. While a person makes the choice to start using drugs (or at least try them), those drugs cause chemical changes in the brain. Addiction is considered a chronic disease because it shares the characteristics of other chronic diseases like high blood pressure. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, common elements include the following:

  • Genetic component or a tendency to run in family
  • Influence of environment such as living with a drug user
  • Ability to treat and manage the disease successfully
  • Possibility of relapse which is 40-60 percent
  • The need to change one’s lifestyle
  • Relapse as a sign for the need to adjust or return to treatment

Just like other chronic diseases, drug relapse is not a sign of failure. Instead, it is a signal that the treatment plan may need to be adjusted or that you may need to get additional treatment. The recognition of addiction as a disease has helped clinicians and addicts alike understand the nature of addiction and its characteristics making treatment more effective.

Drugs and the Reward System

When you do something that satisfies a need (like eating) or fulfills a desire (like sex), something happens in your brain. A neurotransmitter called dopamine is released in the part of the brain called the nucleus acumbens. As a result, you feel pleasure. When we do something pleasurable, the brain records the experience making it more likely to do it again, which is why people often eat too much chocolate. According to Harvard University, when you take drugs, those drugs flood the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. Over time, the brain shuts down the natural production of dopamine, and taking drugs is the only way to fulfill that need for pleasurable feelings. And over time, an addict needs higher and higher dosages of the drug in the brain to produce the same effect, which is called drug tolerance.

Different Drugs Affect Different Parts of the Brain

Drugs alter the reward wiring in the brain, but that is not the only place that drugs can impact the brain. For example, according to McGill University, a public research facility in Canada, cocaine not only affects the reward circuits, but it also affects the caudate nucleus, a part of the basal ganglia in the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for secondary effects of cocaine like nail biting and scratching. Opiates affect the amygdala, which is modulated by endorphins. Opiates also affect the thalamus. Alcohol affects brain structures that use the neurotransmitter GABA including the cerebellum, the cortex and the amygdala, which acts as a natural tranquilizer. This is why alcohol relaxes many people. Marijuana affects the hippocampus, which explains why people develop memory problems from using the drug, too. Marijuana’s effect on the cerebellum might explain why people lose their balance and coordination.

Treatment Works for Overcoming Addiction

Many people don’t think that treatment works. They may have failed at recovery once and concluded that recovery isn’t possible. Other people have seen relapse in friends and family and saw this as evidence that treatment doesn’t work. However, a 1990 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) offers another, scientifically based possibility. According to the article, addiction is treatable if that treatment is administered well and tailored to the needs of each person in treatment. Scientific study has shown that many behavior and pharmacological treatment can are effective in reducing drug use, managing drug cravings and avoiding relapse. However, not all drug treatment or treatment centers are equally successful. This is why it is important to find a treatment center that operates on principles of effective treatment.

Getting Help for Your Addiction

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction, we can help. You can call our toll-free helpline any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can talk with one of our associates about your concerns. Together, you can decide the best options for your situation. We can even help you find treatment centers that rely on proven, effective recovery principles that work. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. Call us today to start on the road of recovery.