How Science Proves Addiction is a Brain Disease

Technology is Moving Quickly

We are all aware of the explosion in social networking opportunities since the world rang in the 21st century just 13 years ago—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Smartphone, Instagram, Pinterest, to name the most obvious. I ask, “Who could have imagined?” But then it is obvious a lot of people had to have done just that, for without it, we would not have had the advances in technology, funding sources and, of course, the brilliant minds, that made this explosion in social networking opportunities possible.

Well, the same is true in a different realm—the realm of the science, and specifically, the science of the brain disease of addiction. Thanks to advances in imaging technologies, such as SPECT, PET and fMRI, scientists and medical professionals are now able to study the live human brain in action, under development, during substance abuse, with mental illness, with medications and after treatment.

Some of the key outcomes of these 21st century findings with regards to addiction are a clear understanding of the disease itself.

What We Now Know

  1. Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. By its simplest definition, disease is something that changes cells in a negative way. Addiction changes cells in the brain. Given that the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does, the nature of the cell changes caused by addiction changes a person’s behaviors, explaining why an addict|alcoholic will lie, steal and break promises made to those they love.  Understanding the science behind these cell changes is helping treatment professionals develop more effective methods for treating this disease.
  2. Addiction is a developmental disease. People are not born addicts|alcoholics. Addiction starts with substance abuse. When a person abuses a substance, the substance interrupts the brain’s communication system—a system comprised of cells (neurons), neurotransmitters, receptors, synapses, to name a few of the key components of what are called neural networks. Drugs and alcohol contain chemicals that tap into this communication system and when abused disrupt how cells normally send, receive and process information.  Repeated substance abuse chemically and structurally changes the brain making a person’s brain more susceptible to his or her key risk factors for developing the disease.
  3. Relapse can be part of the disease for some people. This is due to addiction’s effect on the brain’s pleasure or reward neural networks. Relapse does not mean treatment has failed, nor that brain healing has not occurred. But it does mean treatment should be reinstated or adjusted, as necessary.

More about Addiction

To learn more about the brain disease of addiction, including risk factors, relapse, how a person develops the disease, how drugs or alcohol hijack the brain, what works to help get a loved one into treatment and more, check out The Addiction Project. It is produced by HBO in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

We’d like to thank Lisa Frederiksen for writing this guest post for our site. Lisa Frederiksen is a consultant, national speaker and author of nine books, including If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! and Loved One In Treatment? Now What! She is the founder of and writes a blog of the same name.