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Addiction Is a 'Brain Disease'

Addiction Disrupts Brain Circuitry

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Updated June 15, 2014

Scientific advances have offered remarkable insights into how the human brain works and how it molds behaviors that affect drug addiction, say the directors of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institutes of Health.

Building on these foundations, scientists can now investigate issues that were previously inaccessible, such as how environmental factors and genes affect how the brain responds to drugs of abuse to drive the process of addiction. The report, by NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow, and NIAAA Director Dr. Ting-Kai Li, is published in the December 2004 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Abnormalities in Addicts

"Drug addiction is a brain disease," says Dr. Volkow. "Although initial drug use might be voluntary, once addiction develops this control is markedly disrupted. Imaging studies have shown specific abnormalities in the brains of some, but not all, addicted individuals. While scientific advancements in the understanding of addiction have occurred at unprecedented speed in recent years, unanswered questions remain that highlight the need for further research to better define the neurobiological processes involved in addiction."

Recent studies have increased our knowledge of how drugs affect gene expression and brain circuitry, and how these factors affect human behavior. They have shed new light on the relationship between drug abuse and mental illness, and the roles played by heredity, age, and other factors in increased vulnerability to addiction. New knowledge from future research, say Dr. Volkow and Dr. Li, will guide new strategies and change the way clinicians approach the prevention and treatment of addiction.

More Addiction Research Needed

Topics of future investigations will include:

  • Studies that further explain the brain's circuitry involved in making addicted individuals more responsive to biochemical changes caused by drugs of abuse;

  • Explorations that look more deeply into the genetic and environmental factors associated with addiction, as well as the relationship between addiction and co-occurring mental illness;

  • Developing tailored preventive interventions that take socioeconomic, cultural, age, and gender characteristics into consideration;

  • Investigating new and existing medications that show potential as therapeutic options; and

  • Pairing cognitive-behavioral strategies with medications to treat the brain changes brought about by chronic drug exposure.

"These new methodologies will provide us with a greater understanding of drug addiction," the scientists say. "But, to effectively treat and prevent drug addiction, we need to remove the condition's social stigma and enhance the involvement of the medical community. We also need to boost the contributions of the pharmaceutical industry in developing new medications and encourage the participation of insurers."

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