The Science of Addiction

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"Drug addiction is a brain disease that can be treated.” Nora Volkow, MD, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

From scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both brain and behavior. Many of the biological and environmental factors that contribute to the development and progression of the disease have been identified. Scientists use this knowledge to develop effective prevention and treatment approaches that reduce the toll drug abuse takes on individuals, families, and communities. Understanding the basics of addiction will empower you to make informed choices about your life.

Drug Abuse & Addiction

What is drug addiction?

Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs actually change the brain— both its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and they can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.

Why do people take drugs?

In general, people begin taking drugs for a variety of reasons:

  • To feel good. Most abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the “high” is followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy. In contrast, the euphoria caused by opiates such as heroin is followed by feelings of relaxation and satisfaction.
  • To feel better. Some people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression begin abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse or relapse in patients recovering from addiction.
  • To do better. The increasing pressure that some individuals feel to chemically enhance or improve their athletic or cognitive performance can similarly play a role in initial experimentation and continued drug abuse.
  • Out of curiosity and “because others are doing it.” In this respect, adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of the strong influence of peer pressure; they are more likely, for example, to engage in what they consider to be thrilling or daring behaviors.

If taking drugs makes people feel good or better, what’s the problem?

At first, people may perceive what seem to be positive effects with drug use. They also may believe that they can control their use; however, drugs can quickly take over their lives. Consider how a social drinker can become intoxicated, put himself behind a wheel and quickly turn a pleasurable activity into a tragedy for himself and others. Over time, if drug use continues, pleasurable activities become less pleasurable, and drug abuse becomes necessary for abusers to simply feel “normal.” Drug abusers reach a point where they seek and take drugs, despite the tremendous problems caused for themselves and their loved ones. Some individuals may start to feel the need to take higher or more frequent doses, even in the early stages of their drug use

Is continued drug abuse a voluntary behavior?

The initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary. However, when drug abuse takes over, a person’s ability to exert self control can become seriously impaired. Brain imaging studies from drug-addicted individuals show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works, and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors of addiction.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health

  • Last updated: 02/20/2014
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