The Science of Addiction

the new science behind drug and alcohol addiction
The Science of Addiction

Wouldn’t it be great if we discovered a magic potion to put an end to the pain and suffering of addiction once and for all? Medical science has made incredible strides over the past few decades, taming many chronic diseases. Once considered to be a death sentence, cancer and AIDS have become manageable for many people.


Why not addiction?
One problem is that addiction is in many ways much more complicated. Addiction is derived from several elements, all interwoven: nature (genetic); nurture (environment); physical (genetic predisposition); social (family, friends and the like); and psychological (developments in the brain). Because of its complex nature, this disease requires a multi-prong attack that can’t be formulated into a single pill. However, some recent developments on the nature/physical component of addiction have shown promise and hope for those suffering from the disease of addiction. Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have developed a way to help the brain forget that it is addicted.

“We can completely reverse alcohol dependence by targeting a network of neurons,” said TSRI assistant professor Oliver George, who led the study. Addiction is a brain disorder, and previous studies have shown that frequent alcohol use activates specific neurons (groups of brain cells). The more a person drinks, the more they reinforce activation in that brain circuit, which perpetuates further alcohol use and addiction. So, if a person is predisposed to alcoholism and they drink, they plunge ever deeper into the disease with each sip.

For this new study, TSRI scientists investigated whether there was a way to influence select neurons in order to lessen this effect. In both rats and humans, these neurons make up only about 5% of the brain’s total central operating system, called the amygdala – so rats are reliable test subjects. The rats were injected with a liquid that specifically inactivated the alcohol-linked brain cells, encouraging disinterest in alcohol. The rats’ brains adapted by turning on, or substituting, an entirely different set of neurons, ones in which the alcohol-to-reward connection had not yet been established. They essentially bypassed the addiction-prone brain cells in favor of entirely clean, healthy new ones. Researchers say the next step will be more extensive tracking of the formation of these circuits and figuring out how to translate this knowledge to humans.

The reality, however, is that addiction will never be cured by a pill or even a complicated method; it requires treatment, counseling and support. While this study does provide compelling results and an interesting perspective on the inner workings of the brain, successful testing in rats does not necessarily indicate the same result in humans. The brain is a complex organ which has eluded understanding and inspired more questions than answers for generations of scientists.

It seems that the more we learn, the more we appreciate just how much we still don’t know. A person is complicated and unique, and so, too, is their addiction. It will take more than science to cure them. While science is a useful tool in the fight against addiction, at the end of the day, the only proven method is a comprehensive treatment plan, including extensive aftercare, to achieve and maintain a lasting recovery.

Lawrence Scott Hartman, JD was a functioning addict for much of his adult life. He graduated from Columbia Law School and began a prestigious law career at top international law firms and as general counsel of a real estate company traded on the NASDAQ. Hartman then became a serial entrepreneur and moved to Costa Rica, where his addiction spiraled out of control and landed him in federal prison. Mr. Hartman is now in recovery and shares his experiences and insights with other addicts, hoping to help them to avoid a similar fate. 

Help and support is within reach for you or a loved one battling addiction. Explore InRecovery’s national addiction treatment center directory now.
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