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Science Has Made a Breakthrough in Understanding the Causes of Addiction

July 05, 2022

As an addict and an alcoholic, I have spent most of my life feeling like I was misunderstood. My family couldn’t understand why it was that I continued to drink and use drugs long after it became apparent that I had a problem. My friends began to distance themselves because they couldn’t understand how I felt being an addict and couldn’t watch me continue to destroy myself, and I couldn’t comprehend why I couldn’t just drink like one drink and smoke pot like a normal person.

Societally I felt misunderstood because I saw that my fellow addicts and alcoholics were treated with mistrust and loathing by the general population which led to their incarceration at the hands of the government and the exploitation of their weakness at the hands of large pharmaceutical companies. I saw my people depicted on TV and in films as people other than me, other than the people I knew and I saw this stereotype reinforce misunderstanding and fear.

Even scientifically, the one place that I thought I could look for answers, I felt misunderstood. I was told that I had a disease, although some disagreed with this terminology, that may or may not be hereditary and may or may not have something to do with certain environmental factors. I was told of studies where twins who were separated at birth both experienced addiction and ones where they did not both experience addiction, and with each fact that was produced, it seemed like there was another to refute it.

So I found a solution to my problem with only understanding that I was in fact an addict and alcoholic and that meant that I was incapable of drinking or using drugs. This I found to be the concluding thought to many of my questions and I am lucky that it was sufficient for me to finally get sober. But there are people out there who this singular narrative and finality of the answer may not be enough, and for them, lacking an understanding of why they experience drug addiction and alcoholism, may actually serve to keep them in their active addictions longer.

Luckily, the scientific and medical communities seem to have made a breakthrough in understanding what addiction and alcoholism are, and in doing so this will hopefully help dispel some of this misunderstanding and help to shape the way we treat addiction in the future.

A recent paper from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that they have found 3 key components shared by most people with an alcoholic or addicted brain. They hope that by putting forth this information we will then be able to understand alcoholism and addiction from a new frame of reference and in doing so, hopefully, be able to help more alcoholics and addictions.

The Three Keys To Alcoholism and Addiction

While some of the information presented below may not come as a shock to those people who suffer from these illnesses, having actual scientific backing, besides just, “Well they’re an addict” is important for future research and understanding.

The first key that is shared among addicted populations is that they have a problem with the executive function of their brain. This sort of thinking has to do with a person’s ability to take a step back and see a situation for its entirety. For instance, let's say someone has just overdosed and is getting out of the hospital because of this. A person with a brain that has a normal executive function would be able to see that their need for survival far outweighed the instant gratification offered by using an opioid again and so they would more than likely be able to see that using an opioid again was counterintuitive to their long-term plans. A person with addiction would not see it this way and would find it very difficult to come to this same conclusion because of the problem they experience with this sort of thinking.

The second key has to do with incentive salience, which has to do with the reward center in the brain. For people who suffer from an addiction, their brains actually cause them to place more emphasis on doing behaviors that they find rewarding than a normal person’s brain does. The study also showed that those who suffer from an addiction will more than likely have a brain that releases more dopamine; the chemical involved in the reward part of the brain when it gets what is desired. By releasing a larger amount of dopamine, the addicted brain is essentially causing a person to continuously seek reward because of how “rewarding” it feels.

The third and final key has to do with negative emotionality. This means that people who suffer from addiction are more likely to experience a negative emotions from stimuli than a person who does not have an addicted brain. This means that they are more likely to give in to any and all cravings they have because there isn’t a positive thought process to help counterbalance this. For the addict or alcoholic, this means they are more likely to experience anger or sadness whenever they are stimulated and they tend to focus mainly on negative outcomes. When this occurs, they can sometimes just give in to a craving for drugs or alcohol because there doesn’t appear to be any negative consequence, above that which they are feeling, to stop them.

When these three keys are looked at within our current understanding of addiction it makes a little more sense why addicts and alcoholics act the way they do. Something that many of us have thought for years, that our brains are hard-wired to react differently, is actually true, and hopefully, by finally understanding this on a scientific level, we can move towards finding viable solutions for helping more people with these deadly illnesses. Want to talk more? Call now! 470-348-5426