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Background

Despite the negative consequences of drug use, some people who take drugs are unable to stop. Drugs change the way the brain works. Some of these changes are short term, while other changes can last a very long time.

In some people drug use can change the brain and its neurotransmitters so profoundly that addiction results. Addiction is characterized by the following:

  • Compulsive use: A strong compulsion or drive to use drugs despite negative consequences. In other words, a person persists in using drugs even if he or she is having serious problems.
  • Tolerance: Loss of control over the amount of the drug used—the person needs more of the drug to produce the same effect as before.
  • Withdrawal: Intense craving for the drug when it is not available. The craving results from changes in the brain. Once a person is addicted, he or she must have the drug just to keep from feeling bad. This is because drugs can cause changes in the normal functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Addiction is considered a disease because the drugs have changed the way the brain functions. Different drugs cause different changes in the brain, some more severe than others. Research in animals and humans suggests that some drugs may cause changes that last long after the individual has stopped taking drugs or even permanently.

Research

Addiction affects men and women of all ages and ethnicities. Because of the severity of the problem, scientists have been studying how drugs act in the brain to produce addiction using a range of methods, from brain imaging to psychological testing. These researchers are trying to identify causes and methods of effective treatment and prevention of drug abuse. As a result of this international attention and research, scientists and physicians now have a greater understanding of how drugs act in the brain. This has led to the development of new treatments for drug addiction.

Treatment

When a person becomes addicted to a drug, neurological, physiological, psychological, and social changes take place. These biopsychosocial changes must be addressed for the person to get better. The appropriate treatment is dependent on the individual, drug of abuse, and severity of addiction. 

Often, detoxification is the first step in addiction treatment. Detoxification is the medically controlled withdrawal of the abused drug. However, this is only the first step in successful treatment, and many drugs, such as cocaine, do not cause the typical detoxification symptoms when their use is discontinued. After a person has gotten off of a drug, he or she still must deal with any changes that have occurred in his or her brain as a result of drug use. Often these changes are much harder to deal with than the initial detoxification from the drug use, and research has shown that some drugs can cause changes in the brain that last for a long time and may even be permanent.

For some abused drugs, medications are available that can be used in conjunction with psychological and social treatments. For other drugs, however, medications are not yet available, so successful treatment relies on psychological and social treatments. These treatments can help a person recovering from addiction deal with a range of emotions, including shame, denial, emotional distress, and neglect of family, friends, work, and school. They can also help them deal with a variety of social problems, such as trouble at school and hurt family members and friends. The person recovering from addiction must work to mend relationships with family and friends, reestablish a responsible role in school, and avoid situations that might provoke a relapse. During treatment and recovery, addicted people and their families often have to learn how to communicate in new and healthy ways. This is typically accomplished during family therapy.

These treatments are offered in a variety of settings, such as hospitals and clinics, and recovery continues through the assistance of self-help and individual and group therapy. Addiction is a serious disease and, in some cases, drug abusers start using drugs again after treatment and need to go back into treatment. Although addiction can be treated successfully, the best way to avoid addiction is to never start using drugs in the first place.

This page was last updated September 2012

Brain Power Video Modules: Grades 4-5

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Drugs, Brains, and Behavior - The Science of Addiction

As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both brain and behavior.

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