The Science of Addiction: Is Addiction Really a Disease?

Understanding the science of addiction has expanded greatly, yet we still find ourselves struggling with questions about some of the aspects of addiction.

First and foremost perhaps, is addiction really a disease?

Let’s analyze the matter.

How We Used to See Addiction

Previously, society had a much different viewpoint on addiction. Addicts were seen as lacking personal control. Their behavior was classified into a moral context.

Lamentably, this meant that people who truly needed help didn’t get the appropriate care. They were judged, shamed, and considered weak.

However, we now have a much better understanding of the science of addiction thanks to a lot of new research.

How Addiction Works

Thanks to this research, we now know that addiction causes changes to a person’s brain at the chemical level. Specifically, when a drug is ingested, the chemical affects how neurotransmitters in the brain work.

The drug is able to trick the brain into thinking that it is a neurotransmitter, much like the ones that the brain makes on its own, such as dopamine. It can then attach to neurons in the brain, creating the euphoria often experienced by drug users.

We also know that over time it becomes harder for the brain to experience the same euphoria as before. Thus, an addict will need more and more of the drug to get the same high. They will crave that high until they reach the same level of euphoria again.

Over time, taking in these chemicals dramatically alters how the brain functions. It also has damaging effects on one’s physical and psychological health. Once addicted, it becomes very hard to break free.

Changing Perspectives on Addiction

Groups like the Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse refer to addiction as a disease. The obvious advantage of classifying addiction this way helps to take away the stigma of addiction.

It lets us separate the drug use from the person and who they are. In turn, this allows a clearer focus on how to give these individuals the best treatment they need.

However, more recently, those who study the science of addiction are beginning to take a second look at this classification.

More Research into the Science of Addiction

Researchers are beginning to raise questions about view addiction as a disease. Some of the observations leading to a dispute over the classification include:

  • One study following Vietnam Veterans addicted to heroin during their service documented low relapse rates of between 1-2%.
  • Another study using rats addicted to morphine found that when given alternatives, such as a mate, the rats stopped taking morphine.

Also, Gene Heyman of Harvard University writes that addiction is more of a disorder of one’s choosing. This is as opposed to considering addiction strictly a disease alone.

He notes that many addicts are able to beat their addictions by their 30s. This is because they are provided other incentives, such as having a job, which become more important than drugs.

Factors Contributing to Addiction

There are various factors that can influence whether someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. For example:

  • Family history
  • Stability at home
  • Access to health care
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Mental health history

People who use drugs or alcohol often use these substances to cope with serious issues affecting their lives. Some of these are in their control, but many are not. The results of their drug use can take a toll on both their physical and psychological health.

In the end, research into the science of addiction is showing us that the condition appears to be more complicated than we initially thought. Although classifying it as a disease helps to remove the stigma, it also ignores a person’s ability to overcome their addiction. Moreover, it ignores many factors that can contribute to addiction.

With time, more research and study may help us to form a more nuanced understanding of addiction. Wherever it leads us, it must aim to better serve those who are struggling with addiction and help them find the path to recovery.

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