Drug Addiction

Many people do not understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. It can be wrongfully assumed that illegal drug users lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop using drugs simply by choosing to change their behaviour. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and getting well takes more than good intentions. In fact, because drugs change the brain, quitting is difficult, even for those who are ready to do so. However drug addiction can be successfully treated to help people stop abusing drugs and lead productive lives.

Drug abuse and addiction have many negative consequences and not only for the individual. Family and friends can all be affected by family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, and child abuse.

What Is Drug Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic physical and psychological craving that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her. Although the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge a person’s self control and ability to resist.

Treatment is available to help people get well. Combining a controlled medical detox (for some drugs) with behavioural therapy can ensure success. Treatment approaches that are tailored to each patient’s drug abuse together with any other medical, psychiatric, and social problems can lead to sustained recovery and a life free of drugs.

Drug addiction can be managed successfully although it is not unusual for a person to relapse and begin abusing drugs again. Relapse, however, does not signal treatment failure—rather, it indicates that treatment should be reinstated, adjusted, or that an alternative treatment is needed to help the individual regain control and recover.

What Happens to Your Brain When You Take Drugs?

Drugs contain chemicals that tap into the brain’s communication system and disrupt the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. There are at least two ways that drugs cause this disruption: (1) by imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers and (2) by over stimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain.

Some drugs (e.g., marijuana and heroin) have a similar structure to chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, which are naturally produced by the brain. This similarity allows the drugs to “fool” the brain’s receptors and activate nerve cells to send abnormal messages.

Other drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, can cause the nerve cells to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters (mainly dopamine). The result is a brain awash in dopamine which controls movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. The overstimulation of these elements in the brain – which control  the need to eat, and spend time with loved ones, etc. – produces euphoric effects. This reaction sets in motion a reinforcing pattern that “teaches” people to repeat the rewarding behaviour of abusing drugs.

As a person continues to abuse drugs, the brain adapts to the overwhelming surges in dopamine by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the reward circuit. The result is a lessening of dopamine’s impact on the reward circuit, which reduces the abuser’s ability to enjoy the drugs, as well as the events in life that previously brought pleasure. This decrease compels the addicted person to keep abusing drugs in an attempt to bring the dopamine function back to normal, except now larger amounts of the drug are required to achieve the same dopamine high—an effect known as tolerance.

Long-term abuse causes changes in other brain functions. Changes in the level of glutamate from drug abuse can impair cognitive function affecting judgment, decision making, learning, memory and behaviour control. Together, these changes can drive an abuser to seek out and take drugs compulsively despite adverse, even devastating consequences.

Why Do Some People Become Addicted While Others Do Not?

No single factor can predict whether a person will become addicted to drugs. Risk for addiction is influenced by a combination of factors that include individual biology, social environment, and age or stage of development. The more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction. For example:

  • Biology. The genes that people are born with––in combination with environmental influences––account for about half of their addiction vulnerability. Additionally, gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may influence risk for drug abuse and addiction.
  • Environment. A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to socioeconomic status and quality of life in general. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, stress, and quality of parenting can greatly influence the occurrence of drug abuse and the escalation to addiction in a person’s life.
  • Development. Taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, but the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to more serious abuse,