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What Does It Mean When We Call Addiction a Brain Disorder?

Nora Volkow, MD, is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She writes a blog on NIDA’s website about marijuana research. Her latest entry explains why we call addiction a brain disorder. In the 1980s, as a young scientist she and her colleagues pioneered using brain imaging to compare the brains of people with drug addictions to those without drug problems. “The changes were so stark,” she writes, “that in some cases it was even possible to identify which people suffered from addiction just from looking at their brain images.” A scientific consensus has emerged, she says, that “addiction is a chronic but treatable medical condition” involving specific parts of the brain involved in reward, stress, and self-control. With this knowledge, researchers have developed medicines targeting these parts of the brain to help those with opioid and other addictions recover. More medicines to treat addiction are on the horizon. The essence of addiction, she says, is that drugs “hijack” the brain. “The highly potent drugs currently claiming so many lives, such as heroin and fentanyl, did not exist for most of our evolutionary history. They exert their effects on sensitive brain circuitry that has been fine-tuned over millions of years to reinforce behaviors that are essential for the individual’s survival and the survival of the species. Because they facilitate the same learning processes as natural rewards, drugs easily trick that circuitry into thinking they are more important than natural rewards like food, sex, or parenting.” Read Dr. Volkow’s blog post on addiction here.

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