If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: addiction is a disease. Like any other medical condition, addiction requires treatment, but it can be tough to accept that addiction is more similar to diabetes than it is to, say, yelling at your spouse. Addiction research, though, is getting more and more sophisticated, increasingly offering insights into how and why some people are more vulnerable to the misery of addiction than others.
Like most health conditions, addiction is the product of environment, genetics, and even hormones. No single gene can explain addiction, and no single risk factor means a person will absolutely become an addict. But gaining an understanding of the various biological mechanisms behind addiction can make it easier for addicts to stop feeling shame and hating themselves. These five recent studies add to the stack of evidence suggesting that addicts don’t choose addiction; addiction chooses them.
Gene Network Linked to Alcohol Abuse
Researchers interested in a potential genetic mechanism that might explain addiction compared genes from the brains of alcoholics to people who did not have a problem with drinking. They found that, in alcoholics, certain genes “networked” with each other, but in non-alcoholics, these genes did not work together. This suggests that alcoholism could result from the way genes link up with one another rather than from possession of a single gene or set of genes.
Even more exciting, this research points to a possible alcoholism cure. There are currently only three FDA-approved drugs to treat alcoholism. If more research sheds light on the role genetics play in the disease, though, it could be possible to develop more effective medical treatments.
Brain Damage Can Lead to Crystal Meth Use
Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can affect everything from cognitive skills to your ability to avoid depression. Unfortunately, these injuries are all too common. TBI kills 52,000 people every year and is the leading cause of death in children and babies. There are about 1.5 million reported instances of TBI each year, but these numbers may actually be much lower than the real figure since not all people with TBI pursue medical care.
To evaluate how TBI might affect drug use, researchers surveyed ninth through twelfth graders who had suffered a TBI. They found that, compared to peers who had not sustained a brain injury, kids with TBI were four times more likely to use crystal meth. Kids with a history of TBI were 200% more likely to smoke and 250% more likely to drink than their peers. This is strong evidence that changes in the brain can spur both drug use and addiction.
Forebrain Differences Implicated in Addiction
Children whose family members have a history of substance abuse are more likely to become addicts themselves. A variety of mechanisms could explain this, including early learning and exposure. But in the case of one recent study, researchers theorized that biological differences could increase the likelihood that children of addicts will become addicts themselves.
To test this theory, researchers examined brain activity in kids who did not have a family history of substance abuse to kids who did have such a history. They found that kids with a family history of substance abuse had a significant difference in forebrain function. Interestingly, these kids also had more difficulty responding correctly during a task that evaluated forebrain functioning.
This points strongly toward brain differences that lead to addiction. These addictions could be either inherited, or the product of growing up in an environment where addiction is common; the brain can change itself in response to the environment, and the environment of addiction is certainly sufficiently overwhelming to lead to brain changes.
Alzheimer’s Drug May Stop Binge Eating
Binge eating is a behavioral addiction that can prove nearly impossible to stop, even when a binge eater suffers serious health problems due tot he condition. Memantine is an Alzheimer’s drug that can reduce brain deterioration. It works by blocking glutamate MDMA receptors in the brain. Researchers theorized that these receptors might play a role in binge eating disorder, then gave Memantine to a group of people with a history of addiction to binge eating. They found that the drug quickly worked to reduce – and, in some cases, even eliminate – symptoms.
If drug-induced changes in brain chemistry can reverse a behavioral addiction such as binge eating, this is strong evidence that binge eating results from differences in brain chemistry.
Gut Bacteria’s Role in Alcoholism
Gut bacteria – harmless microorganisms who help you digest your food, ward off dangerous bacteria, and play myriad other roles in health – are increasingly the subject of scientific research. Some data even suggests that gut bacteria could help determine who is at risk of obesity. According to a new study, though, gut bacteria might help determine who becomes an alcoholic, too.
Researchers tested gut bacteria in 63 alcoholics who were still drinking. After these alcoholics completed detoxification and got sober, researchers again tested their gut bacteria. They compared the results to 14 people without a history of alcoholism. They found that, among people with alcoholism, drinking yielded an inflammatory response caused by bacteria in the gut. After alcoholics went through detox, though, the inflammatory process became less severe, suggesting that sobriety could change the way the body responds to addictive substances.
Even more important, though, is the evidence that a biological cause could play such a strong role in addiction. And most powerful of all is the evidence the study offers that sobriety can yield biological changes.
As research gets better and better, we may one day have a clear picture of all of the factors that conspire to lead to addiction. Until then, though, one thing is clear: no one willingly chooses the suffering of addiction.
Northpoint Recovery is a private, highly specialized drug and alcohol detox and rehab treatment center located in Southwestern Idaho. We specialize in helping adults, adolescents and families affected by substance use who require inpatient and detox services. We accept most forms of insurance, credit cards and private payment. For More information, please visit us at www.NorthpointRecovery.com