Is Addiction a Disease?

Posted in: Addiction

April 10, 2014

A visual representation of neurons

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” A person can be addicted to an activity, such as gambling or online shopping, or to a substance, such as caffeine or alcohol. These addictions can vary from mild to severe, and can last anywhere from a few days to a lifetime.

Some people view addiction as a choice that an individual makes or as a behavior that can be stopped willingly at any time. But over the past several years, the medical community’s understanding of addiction has expanded, and medical professionals now see addiction as a complex psychological and physiological problem that demands careful treatment.

Most scientists and medical professionals affirm that addiction affects the chemicals in a person’s brain, that a person’s genetic makeup and environment may suggest his vulnerability to addiction, and that therefore addiction can be classified as a disease.

Biological Causes of Addiction

Scientists have studied the neurobiology of addiction in depth to understand addiction’s effect on the brain. The NIDA reports that addiction, especially substance addiction, physically changes the way the brain understands pleasure and rewards, and that they can therefore be classified as a brain disorder. Drugs interact with chemicals in the brain, especially dopamine, to create a feeling of well-being and euphoria that is longer and more intense than the drug-user’s brain can produce naturally.

Dr. Katherine H. Taber, et al explains in “Neuroanatomy of Dopamine: Reward and Addiction” that this production of large amounts of dopamine in the brain forces the brain to produce less dopamine after the drug leaves the body, creating a cycle of drug use in which the drug-user must use the drug just to reach the brain’s normal levels of dopamine. These extreme surges and decreases in the brain’s dopamine levels often result in an addiction that the drug-user cannot overcome without professional assistance. Once a person has become addicted to a drug, the addiction physically alters the brain’s ability to make decisions, learn and remember information, and control actions.

Scientific research has also suggested that a person’s family history can also show a person’s likelihood of acquiring an addiction. Specifically, the NIDA estimates that 40 to 60 percent of an individual’s susceptibility to addiction can be linked back to his genetic makeup. Compared with people who have no family history of addiction, a person whose relatives struggled with addiction is generally more likely to develop an addiction as well.

This research indicates that there may be hereditary psychological and physical traits that make it easier for some people to develop addictions. In other words, just as a person with a family history of breast cancer is significantly more likely to have breast cancer at some point, so is a person with a family history of addiction more likely to develop an addiction.

Environmental Causes of Addiction

Similarly, an individual’s environment can make him more likely to engage in activities that can lead to addiction. External factors like support from family and friends, socio-economic status, and personal history can all affect a person’s likelihood of getting an addiction.

Addictions are complex behaviors that both stem from and cause psychological and physiological changes in the brain. Every addiction is different, and some people with addictions are able to overcome them on their own. Many substance addictions, though, especially addictions to illegal substances, are nearly impossible to recover from without professional help.

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Foundations Recovery Network realizes that addictions can cause several negative psychological and physiological changes in an individual. Our treatment centers across the nation specialize in helping individuals recover from the mental and physical changes that addiction causes. If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance addiction, call us today at 615-490-9376.

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