Understanding Drug Addiction

Many people have trouble understanding how others become addicted to drugs. They may think that those who use drugs lack moral principles and that they could stop using drugs by simply choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease and quitting typically involves more than just a strong will. Drugs change the way our brains work and make quitting very difficult, even for those who want to quit. Fortunately, we know more about how drugs impact our brains than we ever have, and we have developed treatments that can help people recover from addiction.

What Is Drug Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite their harmful consequences. Most people initially take drugs voluntarily, but repeated use can lead to changes in the brain that challenge a person’s self-control and make resisting the urges to take drugs extremely difficult. The changes in the brain can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a relapsing disease – people recovering from drug use disorders are at an increased risk of returning to drug use even years after not taking the drug.

Relapses are common, but that does not mean that the treatment isn’t working. As with other chronic health conditions, treatment is ongoing and should constantly be adjusted based on how patients respond to it.

What Happens to the Brain When Someone Takes Drugs?

Most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit,” causing euphoria and flooding the brain with dopamine. A functional reward system motivates a person to repeat behaviors which make them feel good, such as eating or spending time with loved ones. Surges of dopamine cause the reinforcement of behaviors like taking drugs, leading people to repeat the behaviors over and over, thus leading to addiction.

As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adapts by reducing its ability to respond to dopamine. This reduces the high they feel compared to the high they felt when they first took the drug, effectively building tolerance, thus pushing users to take more of the drug in order to achieve the same high they once did. These adaptations in the brain can often lead to the person becoming less and less able to obtain pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, such as food, sex, or social interactions.

Long-term drug use can cause other changes in the brain that affect certain functions, such as:

  • Learning
  • Judgement
  • Decision-making
  • Stress
  • Memory
  • Behavior

Despite being aware of these negative side-effects, many people who take drugs continue to do so, which is the nature of addiction.

Why Do Some Become Addicted While Others Don’t?

There is no one factor that can predict if a person will become addicted to drugs or not, as there are many factors involved. The more risk factors someone has, the higher the chances that they’ll become addicted. Factors include:

  • Biology. The genes a person is born with account for roughly half of a person’s risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity, and mental disorders can also influence someone’s risk for addiction.
  • Environment. The environment includes many influences, such as family, friends, economic status, and general quality of life. Peer pressure, physical or sexual abuse, stress, parental guidance, all of these can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of drug use and addiction.
  • Development. Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect the risk of addiction. Using drugs at any age can lead to addiction, but the earlier it begins, the most likely it is to progress to addiction. This is particularly problematic for teenagers, as the areas in their brains which control decision making, judgement, and self-control are still developing.

Can You Cure or Prevent Drug Addiction?

As with other chronic diseases, treatment for drug addiction isn’t generally a cure, per se. Addiction is, however, treatable and manageable. Recovering addicts will be at risk for relapse for years after they’ve ended treatment and possibly for their whole lives. Research has repeatedly shown that combining addiction treatment medicines with behavior therapy has the highest chance of success for most people.

Research has also shown that drug use and addiction are indeed preventable. Prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective at preventing or reducing drug use and addiction. Young people tend to decrease their drug use when they view it as harmful, so education and outreach are important in helping people understand the risks of drug use. Teachers, parents, and healthcare providers have key roles in educating young people about the dangers of drugs and preventing drug use and addiction.