Many people do not understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. It can be wrongfully assumed that drug abusers lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop using drugs simply by choosing to change their behavior. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions. In fact, because drugs change the brain in ways that foster compulsive drug abuse, quitting is difficult, even for those who are ready to do so. Through scientific advances, we know more about how drugs work in the brain than ever, and we also know that drug addiction can be successfully treated to help people stop abusing drugs and lead productive lives.
Drug abuse and addiction have negative consequences for individuals and for society. Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, exceed $600 billion annually. This includes approximately $181 billion for illicit drugs, $193 billion for tobacco, and $235 billion for alcohol. As staggering as these numbers are, they do not fully describe the breadth of destructive public health and safety implications of drug abuse and addiction, such as family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, and child abuse.
Optional Learning Activity
Read this short article titled: Breaking Bad Habits, Why It’s So Hard to Change from NIH News in Health.
- Avoid tempting situations. If you always stop for a donut on your way to work, try a different route. Keep fatty foods, cigarettes, alcohol and other tempting items out of your home.
- Replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. Try exercise, a favorite hobby or spending time with family.
- Prepare mentally. If you can’t avoid a tempting situation, prepare yourself in advance. Think about how you want to handle it and mentally practice what you plan.
- Enlist support. Ask friends, family and co-workers to support your efforts to change.
- Reward yourself for small steps. Give yourself a healthy treat when you’ve achieved a small goal or milestone.
Have you ever tried any of these strategies to break a bad habit?
What Is Drug Addiction?
Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her. Although the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge a person’s self control and ability to resist intense impulses urging them to take drugs.
Fortunately, treatments are available to help people counter addiction’s powerful disruptive effects. Research shows that combining addiction treatment medications with behavioral therapy is the best way to ensure success for most patients. Treatment approaches that are tailored to each patient’s drug abuse patterns and any co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social problems can lead to sustained recovery and a life without drug abuse.
Similar to other chronic, relapsing diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, drug addiction can be managed successfully. And as with other chronic diseases, it is not uncommon for a person to relapse and begin abusing drugs again. Relapse, however, does not signal treatment failure—rather, it indicates that treatment should be reinstated, adjusted, or that an alternative treatment is needed to help the individual regain control and recover.
What Happens to Your Brain When You Take Drugs?
Drugs contain chemicals that tap into the brain’s communication system and disrupt the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. There are two primary ways that drugs cause this disruption:
- by imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers
- by overstimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain
Some drugs (e.g., marijuana and heroin) have a similar structure to chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, which are naturally produced by the brain. This similarity allows the drugs to “fool” the brain’s receptors and activate nerve cells to send abnormal messages.
Other drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, can cause the nerve cells to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters (mainly dopamine) or to prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals, which is needed to shut off the signaling between neurons. The result is a brain awash in dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in brain regions that control movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. The overstimulation of this reward system, which normally responds to natural behaviors linked to survival (eating, spending time with loved ones, etc.), produces euphoric effects in response to psychoactive drugs. This reaction sets in motion a reinforcing pattern that “teaches” people to repeat the rewarding behavior of abusing drugs.
As a person continues to abuse drugs, the brain adapts to the overwhelming surges in dopamine by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the reward circuit. The result is a lessening of dopamine’s impact on the reward circuit, which reduces the abuser’s ability to enjoy the drugs, as well as the events in life that previously brought pleasure. This decrease compels the addicted person to keep abusing drugs in an attempt to bring the dopamine function back to normal, except now larger amounts of the drug are required to achieve the same dopamine high—an effect known as tolerance.
Long-term abuse causes changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that influences the reward circuit and the ability to learn. When the optimal concentration of glutamate is altered by drug abuse, the brain attempts to compensate, which can impair cognitive function. Brain imaging studies of drug-addicted individuals show changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Together, these changes can drive an abuser to seek out and take drugs compulsively despite adverse, even devastating consequences—that is the nature of addiction.
Why Do Some People Become Addicted While Others Do Not?
No single factor can predict whether a person will become addicted to drugs. Risk for addiction is influenced by a combination of factors that include individual biology, social environment, and age or stage of development. The more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction. Consider the following risk factors:
- Biology. The genes that people are born with––in combination with environmental influences––account for about half of their addiction vulnerability. Additionally, gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may influence risk for drug abuse and addiction.
- Environment. A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to socioeconomic status and quality of life in general. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, stress, and quality of parenting can greatly influence the occurrence of drug abuse and the escalation to addiction in a person’s life.
- Development. Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction vulnerability. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to more serious abuse, which poses a special challenge to adolescents. Because their brains are still developing in the areas that govern decision-making, judgment, and self-control, adolescents may be especially prone to risk-taking behaviors, including trying drugs of abuse.
Prevention Is the Key
Drug addiction is a preventable disease. Results from NIDA-funded research have shown that prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective in reducing drug abuse. Although many events and cultural factors affect drug abuse trends, when youths perceive drug abuse as harmful, they reduce their drug taking. Thus, education and outreach are key in helping youth and the general public understand the risks of drug abuse. Teachers, parents, and medical and public health professionals must keep sending the message that drug addiction can be prevented if one never abuses drugs.
Watch this 2 minute video titled Anyone Can Become Addicted to Drugs:
What Is Addiction?
More than three decades of research supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has proven that addiction is a complex brain disease characterized by compulsive, at times uncontrollable, drug craving, seeking, and use that persist despite potentially devastating consequences. Addiction is also a developmental disease; that is, it usually starts in adolescence or even childhood and can last a lifetime if untreated.
Disagreements about the nature of addiction remain: namely, whether it reflects voluntary or involuntary behavior and whether it should be punished or treated as a health issue. Even though the first time a person takes a drug, it is often by choice—to achieve a pleasurable sensation or desired emotional state—we now know from a large body of research that this ability to choose can be affected by drugs. And when addiction takes hold in the brain, it disrupts a person’s ability to exert control over behavior— reflecting the compulsive nature of this disease.
The human brain is an extraordinarily complex and fine-tuned communications network made up of billions of cells that govern our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and drives. Our brains reward certain behaviors such as eating or procreating—registering these as pleasurable activities that we want to repeat. Drug addiction taps into these vital mechanisms geared for our survival. And although not a life necessity, to an addicted person, drugs become life itself, driving the compulsive use of drugs—even in the face of dire life consequences—that is the essence of addiction.
How Does Addiction Take Hold in the Brain?
The rewarding effects of drugs of abuse come from large and rapid upsurges in dopamine, a neurochemical critical to stimulating feelings of pleasure and to motivating behavior. The rapid dopamine “rush” from drugs of abuse mimics but greatly exceeds in intensity and duration the feelings that occur in response to such pleasurable stimuli as the sight or smell of food, for example. Repeated exposure to large, drug-induced dopamine surges has the insidious consequence of ultimately blunting the response of the dopamine system to everyday stimuli. Thus the drug disturbs a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires and substitutes new priorities concerned with procuring and using the drug.
Drug abuse also disrupts the brain circuits involved in memory and control over behavior. Memories of the drug experience can trigger craving as can exposure to people, places, or things associated with former drug use. Stress is also a powerful trigger for craving. Control over behavior is compromised because the affected frontal brain regions are what a person needs to exert inhibitory control over desires and emotions.
That is why addiction is a brain disease. As a person’s reward circuitry becomes increasingly dulled and desensitized by drugs, nothing else can compete with them—food, family, and friends lose their relative value, while the ability to curb the need to seek and use drugs evaporates. Ironically and cruelly, eventually even the drug loses its ability to reward, but the compromised brain leads addicted people to pursue it, anyway; the memory of the drug has become more powerful than the drug itself.
When does drug abuse become drug addiction? It rarely happens with the first use of a drug. Drug abuse and drug addiction can be thought of as points along a continuum. Any use of a mind-altering drug or the inappropriate use of medication (either prescription or over-the-counter drugs) is drug abuse, but the point when drug abuse becomes drug addiction is less clear. Different people may reach the point of addiction at different stages. Scientists continue to investigate the factors that contribute to the transition to drug addiction.
Drug addiction is defined as the continued compulsive use of drugs despite adverse health or social consequences. Drug-addicted people have lost control of their drug use. Individuals who are addicted to drugs often become isolated from family or friends, have difficulty at work or school, may commit crimes, and become involved with the criminal justice system. For a person addicted to drugs, continuing to take them becomes the primary focus in life.
Certain drugs, including opioids and alcohol, cause strong physical reactions in the body when drug use stops. When a person addicted to heroin stops taking heroin, he or she can experience a variety of symptoms ranging from watery eyes and a runny nose to irritability and loss of appetite and then diarrhea, shivering, sweating, abdominal cramps, increased sensitivity to pain, and sleep problems. In general, withdrawal from heroin makes people feel miserable. Withdrawal from alcohol can cause serious effects such as seizures and even death. Withdrawal from other drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, does not lead to strong physical reactions, but it may make the person feel depressed or lethargic. For most drugs, physical withdrawal symptoms can usually be controlled effectively with medications. Even though withdrawal from some drugs does not cause the person abusing them to have physical reactions, stopping drug use is difficult because of the changes the drugs have caused in the brain. Once the drugs stop, the person will have cravings, or intense desire for the drugs. Craving arises from the brain’s need to maintain a state of homeostasis that now relies on the presence of the drug. A person may experience cravings at any stage of drug abuse or addiction, even early in the experimentation phase of drug abuse. Cravings have a physical basis in the brain. Using PET imaging, scientists have shown that just seeing images of drug paraphernalia can stimulate the amygdala (part of the brain involved in emotional memory) in an addicted person.
Drugs of addiction do not merely cause short-term changes in an individual’s cognitive skill and behavior. A drug “high” lasts a short time, ranging from less than an hour to 12 hours, depending on the drug, dose, and route of administration. The changes in the brain that result from continued drug use, however, can last a long time. Scientists believe that some of these changes disappear when drug use stops; some disappear within a short time after drug use stops, and other changes are potentially permanent.
One of the first changes in the brain that may occur in response to repeated drug abuse is tolerance. Tolerance develops when a person needs increasing doses of a drug to achieve the same high or “rush” that previously resulted from a lower dose of the drug. Two primary mechanisms underlie the development of tolerance. First, the body may become more efficient at metabolizing the drug, thereby reducing the amount that enters the brain. Second, the cells of the body and brain may become more resistant to the effect of the drug. For example, after continued cocaine use, neurons decrease the number of dopamine receptors, which results in decreasing cocaine’s stimulatory effect. Opioids, on the other hand, do not cause a change in the number of receptors. Instead the opioid receptors become less efficient in activating associated cellular processes, thus reducing the effects of the opioids.
In addition to the functional and anatomical changes in the brain, drug abuse puts people at higher risk for other health problems. For example, inhalant abuse can lead to disruption of heart rhythms, and snorting cocaine can lead to ulcerations in the mucous membranes of the nose. In addition, injection drug users (IDUs) are at higher risk of contracting HIV through the sharing of potentially contaminated needles. Similarly, hepatitis B and hepatitis C are much more common among drug addicts than the general population. Tuberculosis is another concern. Drug abuse and addiction also are contributing factors in motor vehicle accidents.