The science of addiction deals with how addiction affects the brain and behavior. During the 1930s, society viewed drug addicts as people who lacked willpower due to moral flaws. Scientific research has changed all that with evidence that gives us a better understanding of why people engage in compulsive drug use. We now know that drug addiction is a disease, not a character flaw. This evidence has led to more effective drug addiction treatment programs.
Researchers have already identified environmental and biological factors that lead to drug addiction. Ongoing research is attempting to determine if certain genetic factors are responsible for how this disease develops and progresses.
The medical industry now defines addiction as a brain disease that leads people to compulsive substance abuse, despite the negative consequences on health and behavior. Drug abuse results in long-lasting changes in the brain’s structure and function. As with all diseases, addiction has negative consequences on health but it is treatable. Without the proper treatment, addiction has effects that last throughout life.
People turn to drugs for many reasons. Some people take drugs because they have a euphoric effect that makes them feel better. After the initial high, stimulants cause people to feel energetic, confident and powerful. Opiates have an opposite effect making users feel satisfied and relaxed. Some users are looking for ways to relieve depression, stress, and social anxiety. Improving physical or cognitive performance are goals sought by people who use steroids or prescription stimulants. Adolescents, in particular, are vulnerable to addiction because they tend to take drugs to fit in with their peers.
Casual drug use turns to addiction when the user starts to take drugs to feel normal. They do this despite the health consequences and the effect it has on the people in their lives. In most cases, the user takes drugs at higher doses and more frequently, which is a classic sign of addiction. People make a conscious and voluntary decision to start taking drugs. As they continue to use, they lose self-control and the ability to stop. Images of an addict’s brain clearly show physical changes to the brain in those areas responsible for behavior control, decision making and judgment. These physical changes alter function and many scientists believe this process is responsible for destructive and compulsive behavior with regard to drug use.
Some people are more vulnerable to addiction, just as some people are at higher risk of developing heart disease. Risk factors increase the chance a person will become an addict while protective factors reduce the risk of addiction. Both protective and risk factors may be biological or environmental.
Environmental factors that can lead to addiction include family members who abuse drugs or alcohol or are involved in criminal activities. Peers who use drugs have a strong influence on potential addicts during their adolescent years. An inability to interact socially and difficulty learning are additional factors that can increase the risk of addiction in young people.
Biological factors that can lead to addiction include developmental stage, mental disorders, and other medical conditions. It is important to realize that addiction is treatable. An effective treatment program counteracts the harmful effect on the brain, changes behavior and allows drug users to take control.