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Drug Addiction, The Science Behind It

Drug  Addiction, The Science Behind It

Drug addiction is a disease that compels its victims to abuse dangerous chemicals, despite their overwhelmingly negative consequences. While the decision to begin using drugs is almost always voluntary, repeated use causes changes to occur in the brain that interfere with the user’s ability to resist their allure. It’s because of the persistence of these changes that those who become addicted are so prone to relapsing, even after detox and years of abstinence. For this reason, treatment should be an ongoing process, adjusted to fit the individual’s needs and responsiveness to it.

Reasons for Taking Drugs

There are a number of reasons why people begin taking drugs. The most common one is to experience a sense of euphoria. This intense pleasure is accompanied by other feelings that vary, depending on the type of drug. Stimulants like cocaine provide the user with increased energy, confidence and an exaggerated sense of power, while opiates provide a relaxing high that makes the user want more.

Another popular reason for taking drugs is to deal with problems related to anxiety and depression. People in stressful situations may have a hard time dealing with their problems and use drugs to provide a temporary sense of relief. Since their problems don’t actually go away, they’re prone to repeating this behavior on a regular basis. Stress is particularly problematic, since a recovering addict can easily find themselves relapsing, if the causes of their stress remain or become worse.

Others actually use drugs to enhance their performance at work, school, or in their daily lives. Stimulants are often used for this purpose, since they can provide the kind of energy a struggling student might want to get through their studies, or that an ambitious employee might find useful in climbing the ladder of success. Even athletes are prone to using drugs, either to enhance their physical abilities or to help them recover from intense training.

Finally, adolescents often use drugs either out of curiosity or because their friends are using them. In an attempt to fit in, they may find it difficult to say “no,” despite repeated warnings from responsible adults. Teens are likely to be more rebellious, making them particularly vulnerable to the allure of risky behaviors, in the hopes of impressing their peers.

Changes in the Brain

If it weren’t for some kind of “reward,” few individuals would take part in such risky behavior. They do it because drugs trick the brain’s pleasure centers into providing sensations they feel they can’t acquire elsewhere. This is accomplished through the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion, motivation, movement, cognition, and pleasure. It’s actually a misleading notion, since dopamine can also be released through other activities like eating, sexual activity, physical activity, and spending time with loved ones. The reason drugs seem preferable to certain individuals is because it tends to overstimulate the reward circuit in ways that these other activities can’t compete with.

As time goes on, the individual’s brain adjusts to the additional dopamine by reducing the body’s ability to respond to it. The consequence is that they develops a higher tolerance to the drug, requiring more of it to achieve the type of response that got them addicted to begin with. Along the way, they acquire less pleasure from other activities they may have once enjoyed.

Long-term drug use can also produce unwanted changes in the brain’s chemical processes. This can affect a number of different functions including memory, learning, decision-making, judgment, and outward behavior. Despite being aware of the possible consequences, individuals who become addicted to drugs continue to use them, demonstrating the tremendous impact of addiction.

Dependence vs. Addiction

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between dependence and addiction. This is because different organizations tend to either use the terms interchangeably or define them differently. Note that the scientific community prefers to use the term “substance use disorder.”

In most cases, “dependence” is used to refer to physical dependence, which is characterized by increasing tolerance and withdrawal. While it is possible to be physically dependent on a substance without being addicted, addiction is usually not far off. True addiction is characterized by behavioral changes caused by the altered chemical processes within the brain. Using drugs becomes the individual’s priority, regardless of consequences to themselves or others. They’re likely to behave irrationally when they are lacking their drug of choice.

Psychological dependence occurs when drug use is a response to certain “triggers.” This is basically an emotional response to something external that is associated with using the drug, such as other individuals, events, activities, or places. For example, an individual may associate activities like driving or listening to music with their favorite drug, prompting them to crave it in those situations. In any case, the primary characteristic of drug addiction is that both physical and psychological dependence are present, combined with uncontrollable behavior.


Unfortunately, drug rehab is not a cure for addiction. Recovering addicts will be at risk for relapse for many years, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Research has shown that the most effective approach for treating addiction is combining behavioral therapy with detox medications designed to treat the addiction and provide relief from withdrawal symptoms. Drug rehab should be tailored to the individual, taking into account any mental or psychological problems that may be contributing factors or results of the addiction.

Fortunately, drug abuse and addiction are preventable. Programs involving schools and communities have proven effective at reducing addiction rates. While a number of different factors can contribute to drug use trends, education is the primary key to helping people understand the risks involved in using drugs. The more involved parents and teachers become, the more likely they are to create a positive impact that might ultimately save someone’s life.

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