The Science of Addiction

In a recent conversation with a relative, I tried to explain why addiction is considered a disease and treated as such. During this conversation, I realized that, many times, treatment providers expect people to understand how drugs and alcohol affect a person’s physiology and psychology. We forget that most people do not know about addiction, and that they surely don’t believe it has symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, heart disease or cancer. In an attempt to define addiction as a science and a disease, I went to Dr. Jason Powers, chief medical officer at The Right Step and referenced a publication by J.L. Obert, M.S. and E.D. London, Ph.D. for additional insight.

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In a recent conversation with a relative, I tried to explain why addiction is considered a disease and treated as such. During this conversation, I realized that, many times, treatment providers expect people to understand how drugs and alcohol affect a person’s physiology and psychology. We forget that most people do not know about addiction, and that they surely don’t believe it has symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, heart disease or cancer. In an attempt to define addiction as a science and a disease, I went to Dr. Jason Powers, chief medical officer at The Right Step and referenced a publication by J.L. Obert, M.S. and E.D. London, Ph.D. for additional insight.

As a physician, Dr. Powers addresses each person as a unique individual who just happens to have an addiction problem. When examining a patient, Dr. Powers conducts a thorough history and physical, obtaining medical, psychological, behavioral and family histories. His goal is to begin treating the addiction while also doing an evaluation for possible co-morbid illnesses, traumatic events, and other variables that, if overlooked, would thwart real progress. His goal is to begin the process of treating the whole person – encompassing a holistic approach to better assist the person in the recovery process.

When asked why he defines addiction as a disease, Dr. Powers responds with, “In the science of addiction, we have a sick organ system – the brain. There is also a natural progression in the addiction process that is predictable and reproducible. Like every disease, addiction responds to treatment in all age groups and both sexes – it doesn’t discriminate. There is a significant behavioral component to addiction – true. But, other diseases have behavioral associations, too –  such as lung cancer with smoking, colon cancer with poor diet and smoking, or heart disease with poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking. Many diseases have behavioral factors present that increase the odds of contracting the disease.”

UCLA addiction researchers cite evidence that the brain is dramatically affected by chemical substances and can be permanently altered as a consequence. Obert and London (2002) state, “About a decade ago, PET scans started revealing the effects of psychoactive drugs of abuse on brain functioning. PET scans showed how cocaine and other drugs of abuse profoundly reduced brain activity, particularly in the cerebral cortex, which is critically needed for executive functioning (London et al. 1990; London & Morgan, 1993). Patients attempting recovery who needed to be able to make rational decisions about things such as how to spend their time, as an example, could no longer count on their rational brain to guide them.”

When treatment providers have access to scientific information it can help them communicate to their patients and adapt treatment protocols to improve success rates. “Patients were uniformly relieved to find out that they were experiencing the effects of a disease called ‘addiction,’ rather than being crazy, stupid or bad. This information regarding drug abuse-induced disruption of brain function and the tools developed to help patients cope with their compromised condition proved critical to retaining patients in the clinics long enough to deliver an actual dose of treatment.” (Obert & London, 2002)

The brain is a magnificent organ. People take for granted that it’s functioning will be dependable and automatic. It has the capacity to drive multiple aspects of daily functioning without conscious effort.

When people alter this organ in such a way that manipulates the biology, they take huge risks. Addiction has the potential to produce cognitive deficits that are irreparable. When the brain is addicted to a substance, the behavioral components become increasingly prominent. Most addicted persons get to the point where they have the desire to stop using drugs or alcohol, but don’t have the ability to stop on their own.

Their brains are addicted – their brains are diseased. So, no matter how much willpower they have pointed toward their addictions, without medical, behavioral, emotional and spiritual help, it becomes very difficult to repair the damage their brains have endured.

Blog written by George Joseph, LCDC
George Joseph is a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor who began his career in 1983. George is the CEO of The Right Step,...