July 24, 2015

What Science Says About Drug Addiction

Are you having trouble wrapping your head around your addiction problem and what it means? There’s a lot of confusing information out there about what addiction is and how to overcome it. Some people think addiction is susceptible in individuals with a particular personality trait; others believe it can only be fought with a strong willpower. Only by understanding addiction can it be effectively treated.

What is Addiction?

Medilexicon’s Medical Dictionary defines addiction as a “habitual psychological or physiologic dependence on a substance or practice that is beyond voluntary control“. Other sources refer to it as a complex brain disease characterized by compulsive behaviors that occur despite harmful consequences. Both definitions share a common root in the knowledge that addiction typically begins as habitual behavior that you are able to control. Drinking on occasion in social settings or using drugs in the party scene morphs into resorting to the substance more and more, even when you’re not socializing.

Over time, a behavior you can control–using drugs every now and then–gradually gets out of hand. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) describes substance use disorders as having the following characteristics:

  • Taking the substance more often or for longer periods than intended
  • Having strong cravings
  • Experiencing difficulties in fulfilling significant life roles at work, school or in personal relationships
  • Being unable to stop even after facing negative consequences
  • Developing tolerance symptoms, meaning more of the drug is needed to achieve the same high
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit use

The Affected Brain

Addiction affects the brain in a region known as the reward pathway. Using certain drugs such as cocaine causes the brain to be flooded with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for the feelings of euphoria and the intense “high” you get during drug use. Over time, the brain adjusts to the levels of surplus dopamine. It loses the amount of dopamine receptors or simply stops producing as much of the neurotransmitter as before. Eventually, the person begins to feel depressed and unhappy because of their reduced dopamine levels. They use more of the drug to get the same feeling as before (tolerance). This causes a new rush of dopamine into the brain and starting the cycle of addiction.

Affected Behavior

After the brain has been altered from continued substance use, destructive behavior patterns emerge. At this point, you will do almost anything to achieve a high. When you are not using you tend to feel flat and lifeless, and when you do use you are fully alive. This causes the addict to take part in compulsory behaviors like stealing money, lying about their whereabouts or what they’re doing, and avoiding people who point out their problem. Once an addict begin to isolate from family and friends and spend more time with other users, more problems arise. In an effort to spend more time using, addicts may skip school or work; or, they miss out on important functions because they require a great deal of time to come down from a high. Problems may continue to worsen until they hit ‘rock bottom’.

Science shows that addiction creates detrimental changes to your brain and behavior. If you are a first responder who is struggling with alcohol or drug dependence, contact the qualified staff at First Responders Recovery. Do you part in overcoming your addiction today.


  1. Addiction. MediLexicon Medical Dictionary. http://www.medilexicon.com/medicaldictionary.php?t=1061
  2. The science of drug abuse and addiction: The basics. National Institute on Drug Abuse. September 2014. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics
  3. Drug facts: Brain and addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. http://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/brain-and-addiction

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