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You are here: Science of Addiction > Addiction is a Disease

The Changed Brain: Addiction is a Brain Disease

As Dr. Volkow, Director of NIDA explains, “People say if you consider drug addiction a disease, you are taking the responsibility away from the drug addict. But that's wrong. If we say a person has heart disease, are we eliminating their responsibility? No. We're having them exercise. We want them to eat less, stop smoking. The fact that we have a disease recognizes that there are changes, in this case, in the brain” (Duenwald, 2003).  To increase public understanding of the basics of addiction, research findings have been translated into succinct, everyday language with explanatory brain-imaging visuals. . .   More basic addiction teaching materials , resources  and summary.


“Using drugs repeatedly over time changes brain structure and function in fundamental and long-lasting ways that can persist long after the individual stops using them.


Brain and Heart Metabolism ImageAddiction comes about through anarray of neuroadaptive changes and the laying down and strengthening of new memory connections in various circuits in the brain . . . the evidence suggests that those long-lasting brain changes are responsible for the distortions of cognitive and emotional functioning that characterize addicts, particularly including the compulsion to use drugs that is the essence of addiction.

It is as if drugs have highjacked the brain's natural motivational control circuits, resulting in drug use becoming the sole, or at least the top, motivational priority for the individual. Thus, the majority of the biomedical community now considers addiction, in its essence, to be a brain disease: a condition caused by persistent changes in brain structure and function” (Leshner, 2001). More . . .

Brain “imaging studies have revealed neurochemical and functional changes in the brains of drug-addicted subjects that provide new insights into the mechanisms underlying addiction. Neurochemical studies have shown that large and fast increases in dopamine are associated with the reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse, but also that after chronic drug abuse and during withdrawal, brain dopamine function is markedly decreased” (Volkow, Fowler & Wang, 2003) More. . .

“Such decreases are associated with dysfunction of prefrontal regions . . . In addiction, disturbances in salience attribution result in enhanced value given to drugs and drug-related stimuli at the expense of other reinforcers. Dysfunction in inhibitory control systems, by decreasing the addicted person’s ability to refrain from seeking and consuming drugs, ultimately results in the compulsive drug intake that characterizes the disease. Discovery of such disruptions in the fine balance that normally exists between brain circuits underlying reward, motivation, memory, and cognitive control have important implications for designing multi-pronged therapies for treating addictive disorders (Volkow, 2007) More. . .

Neurochemistry and neuroimaging studies “demonstrate that cravings, cue reactivity, tolerance, and withdrawal can be seen in the brain; that they interact with brain development (particularly among adolescents); that they respond to medications as well as social and physical environment; and that chronic substance use is associated with physical changes in the brain that have an impact on brain functioning and emotional states” (Dennis & Scott, 2007) More . . .

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