by Comprehensive Staff

03/06/2017 4:47 pm

How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

The word “addiction” is derived from a Latin term for “enslaved by” or “bound to.” Anyone who has struggled to overcome an addiction—or has tried to help someone else to do so—understands why.

Nearly 23 million Americans—almost one in 10—are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. In the 1930s, when researchers first began to investigate what caused addictive behavior, they believed that people who developed addictions were somehow morally flawed or lacking in willpower. Overcoming addiction, they thought, involved punishing addicts or, alternately, encouraging addicts to muster the will to break a habit.

The scientific consensus has changed since then. Today we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just as cardiovascular disease damages the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. This happens as the brain goes through a series of changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive toward compulsive behavior.

All drugs of abuse, from nicotine to heroin, cause a particularly powerful surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. The likelihood that the use of a drug or participation in a rewarding activity will lead to addiction is directly linked to the speed with which it promotes dopamine release, the intensity of that release, and the reliability of that release. Read about the specifics of addiction and brain activity at http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain.htm