The Science of Addiction: What Brain Research Tells Us about Drug Addiction

New York Times Upfront, October 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Science of Addiction: What Brain Research Tells Us about Drug Addiction


The impact of addiction can be far-reaching:

* Cardiovascular disease

* Stroke

* Cancer

* HIV/AIDS

* Hepatitis C

* Lung disease

* Obesity

* Mental disorders

How serious is drug addiction?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug addiction is "a chronic, relapsing disease, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, and by neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain." Like other chronic diseases, drug addiction can seriously impair the functioning of the body's organs. It can also increase the risk of contracting other diseases, such as HIV and viral hepatitis, not just among those who inject drugs, but also through risky behaviors stemming from drug-impaired judgment.

Drug addiction often results from drug abuse, which is the use of illegal drugs or the inappropriate use of legal drugs to produce pleasure, to alleviate stress, or to alter or avoid reality (or all three). Risk factors for addiction and protective factors against it (see table below) can be environmental as well as genetic. Scientists estimate that genetic factors, including environmental effects on these genes, account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person's vulnerability to addiction. Recent research has begun to uncover which genes make a person more vulnerable, which genes protect a person against addiction, and how one's genes and environment interact. There is also evidence that individuals with mental disorders have a much greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population.

What Is Addiction?

* Addiction is a complex disease. No single factor can predict who will become addicted to drugs. Addiction is influenced by a tangle of factors involving one's genes, environment, and age of first use.

* Addiction is a developmental disease. It usually begins in adolescence, even childhood, when the brain is continuing to undergo changes. The prefrontal cortex--located just behind the forehead--governs judgment and decision-making functions and is the last part of the brain to develop. This fact may help explain why teens are prone to risk-taking, and why they are also particularly vulnerable to drug abuse. It also explains why exposure to drugs during the teen years may affect the likelihood of someone becoming an addict in the future.

* Prevention and early intervention work best in the teen years. Because the teen brain is still developing, it may be more receptive to interventions to alter the course of addiction. Research has shown many risk factors that lead to drug abuse and addiction: mental illness, physical or sexual abuse, aggressive behavior, academic problems, poor social skills, and poor parent-child relations. …

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