A New Consumer Guide: Understanding Drug Addiction
Drug addiction is a brain disease that can be treated, says a new report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse about the science of addiction. "Many people still believe that drug addiction is a moral failing, but now we know from research that drugs actually change the neurochemistry of the brain in ways that affect behavior," says Timothy Condon, the deputy director of NIDA. The 36-page booklet is geared to the public and is available here.
According to the report, drug addiction has both genetic and environmental causes; the genetic component accounts for 40 to 60 percent of a person's vulnerability. But "genetic susceptibility is not inevitability," says Louisa Stark, director of the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, which recently received NIDA funding to train high school teachers about the science of drug addiction. Being prone to addiction isn't a matter of having a particular gene or not, she says, but rather of having multiple genes that interact to produce vulnerability.
Scientists have shown that while the original choice to take a drug is voluntary, use over time causes anatomical changes in parts of the brain that control decision-making and self-control, while simultaneously sending pleasure signals that feel like a reward for taking drugs. Much of the evidence, Condon says, comes from the "phenomenal developments" in neuroimaging that allow researchers to detect brain activity in great detail.
Prevention is the best defense, according to the report. But like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully, even if relapses sometimes occur. The best strategy: medication in combination with behavioral therapy that helps people recognize and avoid situations in which they might be most tempted.
According to NIDA, abuse and addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and illicit drugs cost upwards of half a trillion dollars each year, counting their medical, economic, criminal, and social impacts. The abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol is linked to the death of more than 100,000 Americans every year, while tobacco contributes to 440,000 deaths.