The Science Behind the Disease of Addiction

Opiate Addiction Science of addiction

With the opiate epidemic growing at such an alarming rate, so too is the debate over the disease of addiction, and if it’s a disease, or a choice. It seems a lot of people that dispute it being a disease, really don’t understand why it’s classified as a disease of the brain to begin with. They see it listed as a disease, and then try to compare it to cancer or some other fatal disease. It doesn’t work like that!

Below is a video, rather lengthy I must admit, but it explains the science behind the disease of addiction. PLEASE take the time to watch all of this video. I see so many people that dispute the facts, but don’t know what the facts are.

Since I know there are going to be a lot of you that don’t want to, or can’t take the time to watch the whole thing, I’ve written a small rundown on the basics, below.

Short Definition of the Disease of Addiction:

Disease of addictionAddiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Let’s be honest, how many of you, addict or not, knows the science behind the disease of addiction, and why it’s classified as a disease? I see a lot of arguing from both sides, but rarely any facts.

When was addiction declared a disease?

AA FoundersIn 1956 the American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognized Alcoholism as an physical illness, followed by drug addiction in 1987 (source info). Thirty years later, we know a lot more about the disease of addiction. How it works in the brain, and much more. Science has still only just broken the surface, really.

Addiction effects the brain in a specific area called the Prefrontal Cortex. This area of the brain is known as the “pleasure center” of the brain. Among other things, this area of the brain is responsible for telling us how great that cake is, or sex, or that drug. It’s also responsible for our risk vs reward, and fight or flight instincts. Basically it’s what kept us alive as cavemen. Seek sex to reproduce, find food, run from dangerous shit.

Interesting fact about the pleasure center of the brain

Drug Abuse Pleasure CenterThis area of the brain does not fully develop in men until they’re 24 yrs old. Thus, making younger people far more likely to develop an addiction, before they even know anything is wrong!

The two areas most effected by addiction

The Hippocampus
The Hippocampus is a small organ located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe and forms an important part of the Limbic system, the region that regulates emotions. The Hippocampus is associated mainly with memory, in particular long-term memory. The organ also plays an important role in spatial navigation.Jan 14, 2014

Prefrontal cortexThe Amygdala
Definition and Function of the Amygdala. … There are two Amygdala per person normally, with one amygdala on each side of the brain. They are thought to be a part of the Limbic system within the brain, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.

This is the area of the brain that’s responsible for the sudden triggers, or cravings, that us addicts have. Sights, sounds, smells, can all suddenly trigger us to remember the high, or the process of getting high, and we find ourselves struggling to fight off the desire to use again.

Dopamine transmittersWhen we use drugs, they send signals to the pleasure center of the brain, and it releases dopamine, MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF DOPAMINE!

For example, when you eat a piece of cake, it has a dopamine level of 120. Sex has a dopamine level of 200. When you do cocaine, it has a dopamine level of 350! Heroin has a dopamine level of 500! Meth has a dopamine level of 1250!!!

When we do these drugs, we flood or brains with dopamine. Our brain panics, and says OH SHIT, SOMETHING’S WRONG, ALL SYSTEMS STOP. NO MORE DOPAMINE! It then does 1 of 3 things.

1. Stop producing dopamine all together
2. Remove the dopamine receptors
3. Remove all dopamine

Either of these is a really bad thing. You become so depressed that it basically feels like, if you don’t get that drug (get that dopamine), you may as well kill yourself.

Type 1 DiabetesThe disease of addiction is no different from any other disease.

When you have any disease, your body sends signals to your brain. Your brain then responds by turning something on, or turning something off. Diabetes type 1 for example. When a normal person eats sugar, the brain responds by turning on the Pancreas. The Pancreas produces insulin which helps glucose  move into the cells. When someone with Type 1 Diabetes eat’s sugar, they’re pancreas doesn’t turn on to produce the Insulin needed. Glucose is then moved to the blood instead of tissue cells. A person with Type 1 Diabetes has to take Insulin manually to survive.

Addiction, a chronic relapsing disease

Drug Addiction Relapse RateOver the years, I’ve met thousands and thousands of addicts. I have known very few of them that got clean once, and never relapsed. The majority of us though, including myself, relapse repeatedly before achieving any real sense of recovery. This also, is no different than a lot of other diseases.

The chart on the right shows a few different diseases, and their percentage of relapse, meaning requiring further medical treatment. While I don’t agree with the percentage of drug addicts that relapse with the disease of addiction, it’s much much higher than that, this chart gives you any idea of other life threatening diseases that people routinely relapse from.

What they mean when they say “relapse” in the case of Diabetes and Hypertension, is the percentage of people that have to seek medical attention because they didn’t take their Insulin, or didn’t take their heart medicine. Yes, they’re different diseases, but still deadly diseases none the less.

The effects on the brain from prolonged drug use

Different drugs effect the brain differently, obviously. The pictures below show different scans of the brain of a normal person with no drug abuse, and then others after abuse of different substances.

brain damage from drug abusebrain damage drug abuse

You’ve seen or heard about an addict doing something awful, and wondered “How can they do that, do they not care?” Well, there’s your answer. It’s not that we don’t care, we do. Our brains are screwed.

Why doesn’t everyone become an addict then?

There are many factors that can lead to drug abuse and/or the disease of addiction. Mental illness is among the highest in contributing factors though. The disease of addiction was in my genes I think. There are many addicts in my family tree.

There is new science to support this as well. Science has discovered a few genes only found in addicts. One of which is called the DRD2 A1 Allele Gene, and could be the beginning of unlocking a way to maybe remove that gene someday. Will it work? Who knows, but I’ll volunteer to try.

Hating an addict for doing stupid shit is like hating a person that had a frontal lobotomy because he drools too much!
In conclusion, This is NOT AN EXCUSE.

I’m not saying “Well, my brains screwed, that’s why I did it, feel bad for me”. Not at all, but this is the indisputable science behind the disease of addiction that I have. I’ll always have it, and will have to treat it daily for the rest of my life, as you would any other life threatening disease.

Why do people get so angry when we call addiction a disease? The alternative, it being a moral deficiency, not only hurts the addict mentally and pushes he or she further into their addiction, but it would also make treatment centers impossible.

Why is it that so many people accept that depression, anxiety, PTSD, that any of these are classified as a mental ILLNESS, but addicts are just no good junkies?

Why is it that people find it so hard to believe the facts surrounding opiate addiction and big pharma’s role in it all? Do they honestly think that big pharma would NEVER LIE to increase profits?

You don’t have to run out and hug an addict, but don’t run out and kick one either. Take the time to understand the disease or addiction. If you still feel the same about us addicts after reading the science behind it, at least it won’t be out of complete ignorance to the facts behind it all.

Check out my other article on how I propose that we solve the opioid epidemic.