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Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction

Treatment and Recovery

Can addiction be treated successfully?

Yes. Addiction is a treatable disease. Discoveries in the science of addiction have led to advances in drug abuse treatment that help people stop abusing drugs and resume their productive lives.

Can addiction be cured?

Addiction need not be a life sentence. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully. Treatment enables people to counteract addiction's powerful disruptive effects on brain and behavior and regain control of their lives.

Recovery of Brain Function With Prolonged Abstinence imageSource: The Journal of Neuroscience, 21(23):9414-9418. 2001
These images of the dopamine transporter show the brains's remarkable potential to recover, at least partially, after a long abstinence from drugs - in this case, methamphetamine.26

Does relapse to drug abuse mean treatment has failed?

No. The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse is not only possible, but likely. Relapse rates (i.e., how often symptoms occur) for drug addiction are similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma27, which also have both physiological and behavioral components. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors, and relapse does not mean treatment failure. For the addicted patient, lapses back to drug abuse indicate that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted, or that alternate treatment is needed.

Comparison of Relapse Rates Between Drug Addiction and Other Chronic IllnessesSource: JAMA, 284:1689-1695, 2000
Relapse rates for drug-addicted patients are compared with those suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Relapse is common and similar across these illnesses (as is adherence to medication). Thus, drug addiction should be treated like any other chronic illness, with relapse serving as a trigger for renewed intervention.27

What are the principles of effective addiction treatment?

Research shows that combining treatment medications, where available, with behavioral therapy is the best way to ensure success for most patients. Treatment approaches must be tailored to address each patient's drug abuse patterns and drug-related medical, psychiatric, and social problems.

How can medications help treat drug addiction?

Different types of medications may be useful at different stages of treatment to help a patient stop abusing drugs, stay in treatment, and avoid relapse.

  • Treating Withdrawal. When patients first stop abusing drugs, they can experience a variety of physical and emotional symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders; restlessness; and sleeplessness. Certain treatment medications are designed to reduce these symptoms, which makes it easier to stop the abuse.
Image of cells and pills Discoveries in science lead to advances in drug abuse treatment.
  • Staying in Treatment. Some treatment medications are used to help the brain adapt gradually to the absence of the abused drug. These medications act slowly to stave off drug cravings, and have a calming effect on body systems. They can help patients focus on counseling and other psychotherapies related to their drug treatment.
  • Preventing Relapse. Science has taught us that stress, cues linked to the drug experience (e.g., people, places, things, moods), and exposure to drugs are the most common triggers for relapse. Medications are being developed to interfere with these triggers to help patients sustain recovery.

Medications Used To Treat Drug Addiction

  • Tobacco Addiction
    • Nicotine replacement therapies(e.g., patch, inhaler, gum)
    • Bupropion
    • Varenicline
  • Opioid Addiction
    • Methadone
    • Buprenorphine
    • Naltrexone
  • Alcohol and Drug Addiction
    • Naltrexone
    • Disulfiram
    • Acamprosate

How do behavioral therapies treat drug addiction?

Behavioral treatments help engage people in drug abuse treatment, modifying their attitudes and behaviors related to drug abuse and increasing their life skills to handle stressful circumstances and environmental cues that may trigger intense craving for drugs and prompt another cycle of compulsive abuse. Moreover, behavioral therapies can enhance the effectiveness of medications and help people remain in treatment longer.

Treatment must address the whole person.

How do the best treatment programs help patients recover from the pervasive effects of addiction?

Getting an addicted person to stop abusing drugs is just one part of a long and complex recovery process. When people enter treatment, addiction has often taken over their lives. The compulsion to get drugs, take drugs, and experience the effects of drugs has dominated their every waking moment, and drug abuse has taken the place of all the things they used to enjoy doing. It has disrupted how they function in their family lives, at work, and in the community, and has made them more likely to suffer from other serious illnesses. Because addiction can affect so many aspects of a person's life, treatment must address the needs of the whole person to be successful. This is why the best programs incorporate a variety of rehabilitative services into their comprehensive treatment regimens. Treatment counselors select from a menu of services for meeting the individual medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal needs of their patients to foster their recovery from addiction.

Group photo
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Seeks to help patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to abuse drugs.
  • Motivational Incentives. Uses positive reinforcement such as providing rewards or privileges for remaining drug free, for attending and participating in counseling sessions, or for taking treatment medications as prescribed.
  • Motivational Interviewing. Employs strategies to evoke rapid and internally motivated behavior change to stop drug use and facilitate treatment entry.
  • Group Therapy. Helps patients face their drug abuse realistically, come to terms with its harmful consequences, and boost their motivation to stay drug free. Patients learn effective ways to solve their emotional and interpersonal problems without resorting to drugs.

For more information on drug treatment, see Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.

This page was last updated August 2010

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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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