How Is Scientific Research Helping Our Understanding of Addiction?

How Is Scientific Research Helping Our Understanding of Addiction?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive, drug-seeking behaviors. Recent studies have allowed the medical community and the public at large to understand more than ever before the complexities of addiction. Because addiction is now no longer considered a bad habit that better decision making can correct, the medical community is better equipped than ever to treat this deadly disease. The more society works to understand the way addiction changes the brain, the better chances of helping those who struggle with the debilitating disease.

The Magnitude of Drug Addiction

The National Institutes of Health reported that, in 2010, more than 23.1 million people in the US needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem, but only 2.6 million received it. However, research further reports that, with the right diagnostic tools and training, primary care providers could reduce the use of drugs and alcohol in their patients before it escalates into full-blown addiction. The key in this fact is in the screening process and in helping physicians feel comfortable initiating conversations with their patients about such subjects.

The National Institutes of Health found that drug abuse and addiction—including tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs—costs the US more than 700 billion dollars annually in healthcare costs and costs associated with drug-related crime and lost productivity. Understanding as much as possible about this disease through research is the best way to reduce the number of lives that are impacted and the associated costs. Nearly 1 in 11 people in the US over the age of 12 can currently be classified as having a substance abuse or dependence disorder. Gleaning as much information as possible about this devastating disease is crucial to reducing its impact on society.

Drugs and the Brain

To know how drugs impact the brain, it is important to understand more about this amazing organ that controls all bodily functions. The brain is made up of many parts, each responsible for controlling some vital function. For instance, the brain stem controls heart rate, breathing and sleeping and the cerebral cortex controls the senses and our ability to think, reason and solve problems. Also, the limbic system is the reward center of the brain, so it controls our ability to feel pleasure as it sustains life-giving behaviors like eating and socializing. It also regulates our emotions.

The brain works as a complex communication system. Chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are the brain’s messaging system. Receptors receive the messages, and transporters recycle the neurotransmitters back to the neurons that sent them, which shuts off the signal.

When any part of the brain’s messaging system is interrupted, normal bodily functions are thrown into a state of flux. If the neurotransmitters are not functioning because of the influence of a drug, then the brain begins to rely on the drug for the feelings of euphoria that the drug produces. Over time, the drug takes the place of the neurotransmitters, and the body needs more of the drug to produce the same result. If the transporters are unable to recycle neurotransmitters, then the signals are never shut off, so the brain continues in whatever pattern has established. This fact could explain why drug abusers are unable to stop using, because the brain becomes completely dependent upon the drugs to do what a healthy brain does on its own. In short, drug abuse in an addict is not a choice, but a compulsion.

Who Becomes Addicted?

Research has helped scientists understand why some people become addicted to drugs and why others do not. Although no single factor can predict whether someone will become an addict after using drugs, the following key components, taken from WebMD, can measure one’s risk:

  • Biology—Genetic make-up can increase a person’s risk for drug addiction. The genes you are born with, combined with environmental factors, make up approximately half of your addiction vulnerability. Gender, ethnicity and other mental health issues increase this risk.
  • Environment—A person’s family, socioeconomic status, peer pressure, parental involvement, stress and sexual abuse can all increase the risk of developing addiction
  • Development—Genetic and environmental factors interact with stages of development to produce a greater risk for developing addiction. Simply put, the earlier a child is exposed to drug and alcohol abuse, the more likely she is to struggle with addiction. When drugs enter the body at critical stages like adolescence, the developing brain is unable to process good and bad decisions. The adolescent brain is also more prone to risk-taking behaviors.

Knowing who is at risk for substance abuse can strength prevention methods, and prevention is the key to ending drug addiction.

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