Addiction is a devastating issue that touches the lives of millions of people. It destroys families, friendships, careers and anything in its path. Addiction comes in many forms and severities, but to truly understand and treat addiction we must first answer the question: what is addiction?
An addiction involves a substance or behavior that a person pursues compulsively. It can be a variety of activities, but most often include drugs, alcohol, gambling or sex. An addictive behavior or substance is sought out despite awareness of harmful consequences.
Addictions to substances manipulate important functions of the brain, altering the way pleasure is processed while subduing areas that pursue learning and motivation. Anything that provokes pleasure, whether it is drugs or a natural reward, triggers the release of the neurotransmitter Dopamine. The probability that the use of a pleasure deriving substance will turn into an addiction is directly correlated with the speed at which is promotes the release of Dopamine. Hence, the extremely addictive nature of substances like heroin and other opioids.
The Brain’s Reward Circuit
Naturally, humans are wired to engage in rewarding or pleasurable behavior. This is reinforced by the Mesolimbic System, also known as the brain’s reward circuit, a Dopamine releasing pathway. The Mesolimbic system extends from the Ventral Tegmental area to the Nucleus Accumbens and Prefrontal Cortex. Dopamine is released the Nucleus Accumbens to regulate motivation and desire for a rewarding substance. Drug use increases levels of Dopamine and feeling of increased reward, leading to dysregulation of the Mesolimbic System and, in turn, addiction.
The root of addiction involves a variety of both environmental and biological factors, determining a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction. Biological factors that increase the risk of addiction include gender, genetics, ethnicity, age, and mental health issues, while environmental factors include home and family dynamics, childhood and parental trauma and relationships and peer influence.