Although addiction was once considered a matter of character or morals, it is now understood to be a disease and classified as such by most medical and research associations. The American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the World Health Organization all agree that addiction is a chronic yet treatable disease that affects the brain and body. Addiction is considered a disease for many reasons, including the following.
Addiction Changes the Structure and Function of the Brain
Advances in brain imaging and other research tools have led to a greater understanding of the ways in which the brains of people who suffer from addiction are affected. These include changes in multiple brain regions.
The World Health Organization notes that drugs and alcohol produce immediate effects in neurotransmitter systems, but that there are also many short- and long-term changes at the cellular level. They note that long-term effects are usually associated with changes in gene expression and synthesized proteins. The proteins alter the function of neurons and lead to changes in behavior.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that drugs use the brain’s communication system to disturb the way that nerve cells process information. They can do this in various ways. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, imitate the brain’s natural chemicals and fool the brain into sending abnormal signals. Other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, cause the release of abnormally large amounts of neurotransmitters.
The neurotransmitter most often associated with the development of addiction is dopamine, part of the brain’s reward system. When the reward system is overstimulated, a reinforcing pattern is put into place. The brain adapts to the surges in dopamine by producing less or by reducing the number of receptor cells, which leads people to use larger and larger amounts of their drug of choice.
The glutamate system is also affected. Glutamate is associated with learning, and when the concentration is changed, cognitive function can be altered. NIDA reports that in drug-addicted individuals, there are changes in areas of the brain associated with decision-making, memory, learning, judgment and behavior control. NIDA concludes that while the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary in the majority of cases, the brain changes caused by substance use severely affect an addicted individual’s ability to exercise restraint.
There Is a Strong Genetic Component to Addiction
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that about half of the risk of developing addiction comes from genetic factors. Studies of adopted children and twins raised apart have confirmed that the tendency of addiction to run in families is not solely due to environmental considerations such as parental modeling.
People Vulnerable to One Addiction are also Vulnerable to Others
Because a predisposition to addiction is due to brain changes, any potentially addicting substance or activity can become a problem. It is not uncommon for people to replace one addiction with another or to relapse on their drug of choice because use of another substance affected the same brain regions involved in the primary addiction. The tendency towards cross-addiction can also be seen in families where there is a strong history of addiction, but not always to the same substances.
Addiction Can Be Effectively Treated with Medications
Medications have not been developed to treat every addiction, but for those suffering from addiction to opioids, opiates, or alcohol, pharmaceuticals can be a very important addition to a treatment protocol. Medications are currently in development to treat addiction to other substances as well.
Medications for addiction alter the way in which neurotransmitters affect the body by binding to receptor sites. Drugs that mimic the action of natural neurotransmitters are known as agonists. Other drugs, known as antagonists, bind to receptor sites, but do not activate them. In that way, they block the actions of other drugs on the same receptors. Drugs approved to treat addiction to opiates and opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers include methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. Medications for alcohol addiction include naltrexone, acamprosate, disulfiram and topiramate.
You Can Take Back Your Life
Addiction is a serious disease, but one that can be treated effectively. If you or a loved one is ready to overcome an addiction to amphetamines, give us a call. Our helpline is available 24 hours a day and the call is toll-free. Our employees are compassionate and knowledgeable and understand the issues involved. They can answer your questions and help you understand your treatment options. They can also check your insurance coverage for you if you wish, at no cost or obligation. Don’t let addiction take any more of your life from you. Call now and begin to take it back.