Proof that Addiction is a Disease and How it Affects the Brain

Nobody doubts that addiction presents people in their worst state.  But people define addiction in different ways.  Below, Kill the Heroin Epidemic Nationwide™ tackles the key issues, proving once and for all that addiction is a disease

Addiction is NOT the same thing as Using Heroin, Drugs, Alcohol, Etc.

Addiction is a Brain DiseaseMany people have commented something like the following “Heroin isn’t a disease, it’s a choice…” or “Nobody forces anyone to use drugs, how can it be a disease?”  These are valid points.  However, nobody said heroin is a disease and nobody is arguing that using drugs is a disease either.  Simply put, addiction is NOT the same thing as heroin nor is it the same thing as using drugs.

Heroin is a drug and using drugs is an action.  Those with and without a genetic predisposition to addiction may start using heroin or other drugs for their own reasons.  Perhaps they’re not happy with their life or maybe they’re trying to escape from a painful reality, or memory, etc.  Reasons (which some people call “excuses”) vary from person to person.  However, the actual act of using drugs is not the same as a disease.  While we firmly believe that people should be more sympathetic to other’s pain which may have led them to use heroin or other drugs in the first place, it is indisputably a choice to use heroin.

However, those with a genetic predisposition to addiction will experience a chemical reaction in the brain the first time they use heroin, causing brain chemistry changes and an irresistible connection/bond to heroin.  At this moment, addiction sets in and the disease is real.  Heroin use and abuse will inevitably continue and breaking the connection to it becomes seemingly impossible.  It can be done but it is very difficult.

Those without a genetic predisposition may enjoy the feeling heroin produces but they won’t experience the same chemical reaction in the brain.  They may even continue using heroin for awhile but the degree of difficulty related to stopping heroin use is much lower than those who suffer from the disease of addiction.

Addiction Vs Dependency

Addiction vs Dependence

Addiction is not the same as dependency.  Drugs do not have addictive qualities or characteristics.  People do.  However, heroin or drugs can have properties of dependency.  Dependency can be defined as the physical reliance on a particular substance because without it, the body may go through some kind of withdrawal.

Anyone can become dependent on a drug.  For example, someone who suffers from depression and takes Zoloft can easily become dependent on it.  Those who forget to take it for several days will likely experience withdrawal symptoms which may become a reminder to take their medication.  However, addiction is cognitive not physical.  Those who are addicted are also likely physically dependent but those who are dependent aren’t necessarily addicted.  For example, those who are addicted will likely never let themselves get to the point of physical withdrawal because the cognitive connection (the addiction) creates a fierce desire to use

What is Addiction?

Addiction therefore can be defined as the chemical reaction in the brain and cognitive connection to heroin, other drugs or even an activity such as gambling or sex that takes place in select individuals at the time they indulge in it.  Addiction is therefore, not the same as drug use or heroin.  It is the brain chemistry changes that take place.  So how exactly does addiction affect the brain?

Ways that Addiction Affects the Brain

The brain is highly complex.  However, addiction has been shown and demonstrated to affect the brain in at least 4 ways.  Remember, the onset of addiction occurs the first time someone engages in a particular substance or activity, though those with a genetic predisposition to addiction don’t necessarily become “addicted” to all substances and risky activities.  For individual and physiological reasons we don’t understand, one with a genetic predisposition to addiction may become addicted to heroin while another may not, but become addicted to alcohol.  We assume it’s similar to why people have different tastes, likes and interests.  Not everyone likes baked ziti, but others love it.

Addiction Changes the Brain’s Natural Balance – Homeostasis.

Foundations Wellness CenterAddiction interferes with a crucial biological process referred to as homeostasis. The body is a biological system. Homeostasis is the process of maintaining a normal balance. The brain is at its center and functions as the overseer of this balance. The brain sometimes makes various adjustments to maintain a well functioning, balanced biological system. What’s considered “normal balance” varies from person to person. However, when addiction occurs, it affects the brain’s ability to maintain a normal balance.

When the brain has difficulty maintaining homeostatic balance, the brain adapts and makes changes by creating what’s called a new balanced set-point. This is referred to as allostasis. Below is an example:

If someone gains weight, they may try to keep fitting into the same clothing. However, since this isn’t comfortable, they’ll eventually buy new clothing they can fit into to become more comfortable. This person has changed their “homeostatic balance” by going from a medium to a large size. Weight loss will result in increased health but a new adjustment as well – including increased costs of buying new clothes, etc. This process is similar to what the brain goes through when people fight against addiction. Although it’s a positive change, discomfort is inevitable while the brain readjusts itself.

The brain’s ability to adapt (allostasis) causes significant changes to how it functions. These changes account for multiple behaviors related to addiction. These include

1. The compulsion to obtain heroin, drugs or engage in destructive activities despite harm to self, family or friends

2. The increased level of difficulty associated with quitting heroin, drugs or risky activities

3. The obsession related to the object or activity one is addicted to making everything else in life unimportant. This is because addiction created a chance in the brains homeostatic balance to accommodate addiction. The brain affected by addiction requires the object of its addiction in order to maintain this new homeostatic balance.

Addiction Alters Brain Chemistry

Brain chemistry and addictionCommunication is important. But imagine if your positive communication skills were altered and affected? Addiction alters the effectiveness of our communication.

This brain’s communication system is always changing and adapting. Various drugs (including prescribed medications) have the ability to alter the brain’s communication system. Anything that changes the brain’s communication system will also modify brain functionality.

The brain possesses what’s referred to as a neurotransmitter, a chemical substance at the end of a nerve fiber that’s released upon the arrival of a nerve impulse. Without getting overly technical, these neurotransmitters are responsible for the brain’s communication with itself and other parts of the body.

Excitatory neurotransmitters activate a neuron and cause an “action potential” (the neurons way of transporting electrical signals from one cell to the next.) Inhibitory neurotransmitters prevent the sending of an action potential. Glutamate is the most common excitatory neurotransmitters and Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is the most common inhibitory neurotransmitter. Both of these play a role in the addiction process. Other common neurotransmitters that are involved in the addiction process includes dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Neuromodulators and neuropeptides also play a distinct role in the addiction process. These include endorphins (natural brain made opiates), stress hormones and peptides associated with feeding and anxiety.

Structure of a motor neuron, vector illustrationSome neurotransmitters are sensitive to very specific drugs. Every drug in varying degrees affect neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine. Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine have a very strong effect on dopamine. However, both neurotransmitters and receptors play a role in the addictive process. See the below.

1. Cocaine and methamphetamine affect the dopamine system
2. Opiates which includes heroin, oxycodone, morphine, codeine, etc.) change the following systems: dopamine, opiate (endorphin) and GABA (Gama-aminobutyric Acid)
3. Alcohol affects the following systems: dopamine, glutamate and GABA
4. Marijuana activates dopamine and the brain’s cannabinoid system
5. Nicotine affect the acetylcholine system
6. Ecstacy affects the following systems: dopamine and serotonin

Addiction Affects the Brain’s Communication Patterns

Until recently, it was believed that the brain’s neural pathways was completely formed by the time we reached adulthood. However, recent scientific developments suggest that the human brain continues to create new neurons and neural pathways throughout an individual’s lifetime. Neurons are dynamic and are continuously changing and adapting to new circumstances. Neurons can even make new communication pathways around damaged areas of the brain (such as from a stroke or injury). This is known as neuronal plasticity.

NeurotransmittersNeuroplasticity regulated learning processes and helps us adapt to our surroundings. New neural pathways are formed at the onset of addiction. This is because addiction chemically alters the brain’s communication system. When the drug is taken away, the brain must again create new neural pathways. Just like the example of gaining weight and trying to fit into the same clothing, this process is initially uncomfortable. Thankfully, it is only temporary as the brain adjusts. Thus, the first couple of weeks of recovery in particular may be uncomfortable, but as the brain begins making the necessary adjustments, you’re on your way to a healthier and better life.

While the brain wonderfully and powerfully adapts due to its dynamic characteristics and qualities, it’s ability to do so is also the root of addiction. The genetically predisposed brain adapts to the strong affects of powerful drugs and risky activities. when it does, changes occur in the brain areas associated with reward, memory, decision making, emotion and stress regulation. These changes to the brain make repeatedly using the object or activity of addiction practically irresistible. But because of the brain’s neuroplasticity , we capable of correcting these changes and learning new coping skills (despite structural changes in the brain). But what are these structural changes that occur in the brain?

Addiction Changes Brain Structure and Functioning

the concept of thinking.background with brain.the file is saved in AI10 EPS version. This illustration contains a transparencyThe brain is composed of many different structures and regions. The brain’s communication system enables various structures and regions to coordinate their functions and activities. Each region and structure serves a different purpose. Addiction alters these regions and structures and can alter the way they function. These structural changes lead to impaired decision making, compulsivity and impulsivity, drug-seeking behavior and cravings, habit formation, withdrawal effects, relapse triggers and stress regulation.

Conclusion

The brain is a fascinating organ and is the central part of human thinking, behavior, emotion and longing.  Those with a genetic predisposition to addiction possess a brain that responds differently to certain substances or activities which are essentially objects of addiction.  Those who don’t suffer from addiction can logically understand the above but won’t be able to relate to the changes in the brain which makes the object of addiction virtually irresistible.  Thankfully, recovery is possible and people can overcome obstacles.  There is no cure for addiction but it can be treated.  There are a multitude of treatment options available and drug rehab centers can help.  View our list of recommended addiction treatment centers.

Sources

http://gracepointwellness.org/1408-addictions/article/48370-how-does-addiction-affect-the-brain

Written and Published By,

William – Publisher and Founder of Kill the Heroin Epidemic Nationwide™
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49 thoughts on “Proof that Addiction is a Disease and How it Affects the Brain

    • True, the study has been performed many times however, many people don’t understand how addiction works and thus, it’s important that this community take the time to provide the information. Nobody said the information was new, only that it’s relevant and until everybody understands, we feel responsible as an organization and community to educate and teach people.

      William – Founder and Publisher of this Community

      • Regardless of a person’s stance on this argument the problem is the number of drug addicts using this as yet another excuse to continue to use! Many of us with addictive personalities and who go through horrible things in life still choose NOT to grab a needle a put KNOWN toxic substances in our bodies! CHOICE!!!!

        • Carrie,

          I don’t think you get it. The issue isn’t whether or not someone initially chose to try a certain drug. It’s the issue of what happens after. Let me ask you something. Have you ever had a sip of wine? Beer? Have you ever smoked? Now…if you had a genetic predisposition of addiction and alcohol hit the pleasure center of the brain a certain way, the first time you took that sip and experienced that buzz, a switch would flip in your brain, making you feel like you’ve been reacquainted with the love of your life, creating a compulsion to continue a relationship with it, using it regularly, etc. Turning off the compulsion is impossible…the best you can do is try to resist. But just like the one you fall in love with, why would you want to resist? But then, the more you indulge, you see signs that something is going wrong….consequences are starting to happen. But even then, can you tell the love of your life that you must move on?

          Telling an addict that it’s a choice to keep using heroin is like telling a man or woman in love that it’s a choice to keep running back into their arms. And while you are right…the physical act of using drugs is a choice, the compulsion is so strong for an addict that it feels next to impossible to resist.

          We encourage you to do some more reading and educate yourself.

          Peace and Love

          William

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  11. It is important no matter how redundant, there’s too much scientific and medical proof for people to still deny the validity of addiction as a disease. Spreading awareness like this is the start to educating people on the matter.

    • Franky,

      I couldn’t agree more. The reality is, no matter how many times I make videos or post content about addiction being declared as a disease with proof and everything, there are always people who comment that it’s a choice. Addiction is not a choice. Drug use is a choice and is a behavior that feeds our disease. But someone using drugs doesn’t choose to be an addict the same way someone eating sugar foots doesn’t choose to be a diabetic.

      Peace and Love,

      William

      • agree with this statement 100% , I have a daughter who is a addict and she says she wants help BUT her anxieties kick in and she wont reach out to anyone !! wish I could find someone to help her in our home 1 on 1 I think would work better for her because of her anxieties of people and to get her to rehab is hard !!

        • Lisa,

          Thank you for your post and comments. We work with some excellent very private addiction treatment centers that provide 24 hour 1 on 1 care. They customize and tailor their program to each individual so if your daughter experiences a lot of anxiety, they would provide more one on one time. Please contact me at help@kthen.org or fill out our brief addiction treatment form. Let’s see what we can do to help her.

          Peace and Love,

          William – Founder and Publisher of this Community

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  28. As someone who has fought with people for years over the whole “Heroin addiction is a disease” thing- I loved this article and agree with it. I refuse to believe the Heroin epidemic is a disease (like cancer) while my friends do believe it is a disease (like cancer) and refuse to take any personal responsibility for their role in it, becoming violently angry if someone suggests that they get help, because after all, it’s not their fault. They have a disease. In my college days I was heavily into drugs. Benzodiazepines by the handfuls daily, cocaine, Ecstacy, LSD, etc. I did them every day, losing days at a time, with my best friend, every single day for 4 years. We did the exact same amount. One day I got bored with getting high and said to him “This is boring now. Let’s not get high today”. He couldn’t. His brain had changed. It was different than addiction. Your explanation made the disease argument clearer for me- so thank you. Though I would still think the word “Diseased” would be better than “a disease” since the latter implies a virus or bacteria floating around that people catch- which is why most people who don’t believe in the disease theory. Thank you for changing my mind. I like your website.

    • Racheal,

      Thank you for sharing your detailed thoughts on the subject. It’s not always easy to describe but I believe that addicts are both victims and agents. IN other words, we don’t have any control over the disease of addiction itself, which can be defined as a ubiquitous connection and a cognitive compulsion but we do have control over whether or not we feed the disease (by using drugs). In other words, the actual disease of addiction is in the brain and cognitive thought. It’s a chemical and structural changing of the brain. Admittedly, compulsions can be so strong for an addict that it feels like they “must” use drugs and that it’s not a choice. But addicts do still have a choice to resist the temptation and to get help. I wrote another article called The Role of Responsibility and Accountability in Recovery that focuses a little more the agent aspect of addiction.

      I hope this helps.

      Peace and love,

      William

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  34. I have been following your posts with great interest.As well,I have been commenting on the posts where I feel My input could help someone escape the “grasp of the worst Monster” they will ever know.But, I feel that not enough emphasis is put on the after care aspect of recovery.”Kicking the sickness” is but half the battle.Learning to live without seeing your “old friend” is as hard,maybe harder that the actual cleansing.

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