Futures Recovery Healthcare

Is Addiction a Disease? Understanding the Science behind Addiction



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Addiction continues to ravage our nation. Whether to an illicit drug, prescription drug, or alcohol, millions of Americans report experiencing addiction to a substance. The statistics are alarming. Understanding how the brain works and how addiction changes the brain are key in creating effective prevention and treatment programs. 

A study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Health Services, reported that a staggering one-third of adults in the United States had an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and of these millions, only 20 percent ever received treatment. Additionally, the study revealed that 10 percent of all U.S. adults had a drug use disorder and of these only 25 percent received treatment. 

Today, we know so much more about addiction, risk factors, signs, the science behind it, and effective treatment options. Yet, so many go without treatment continuing to live in the pain that addiction brings. The families and loved ones continue to suffer too.

Gaining an understanding of the brain disease model of addiction (BDMA) is essential to not only break the stigmas associated with addiction but also develop more prevention and treatment programs that work. 

What is Addiction? 

Stigmas surrounding addiction have been around for many decades. Believing a person with an addiction problem is weak, has moral defects, doesn’t care, or lacks willpower are some of the most common misconceptions. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease of the brain. It is characterized by compulsive drug-seeking that is very difficult to control despite harmful consequences. 

Many argue that taking a drug or picking up a drink is a voluntary decision. And while this is true—at first—once dependence and addiction begin, it is not the whole picture of addiction. Repeated and chronic use of a drug or alcohol, changes the brain. These changes include impacting the person’s self-control and causing problems with cravings and resisting the often persistent urge to use the drug or to drink. Advances in the study and science of addiction as well as brain imagery, have revealed these changes that make it so difficult to ‘just stop’ once addiction has taken hold. 

If you are living with an addiction to an illicit drug, a prescription drug, or alcohol, there is hope. While it may seem hopeless to you now, it’s important to know that many others have been in your place and have found help. These millions of people have begun the road to recovery and remained sober to enjoy happy, fulfilling lives. Futures Recovery Healthcare utilizes evidence-based programs to empower people with addiction and alcohol issues to heal from addiction. 

Addiction and the Brain

Alcohol and drugs—both illicit and prescription—affect the brain’s reward and pleasure circuits. Most cause euphoria and prompt the release of large amounts of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends messages between cells. This chemical messenger plays a significant role in feelings of pleasure. These surges in dopamine, cause the brain to seek this out again. When these surges are from drugs, the individual’s brain tells them to use the drug again to achieve this elated feeling of euphoria once again. 

Repeated drug use continues and the brain changes by reducing the cells in the reward circuits response to the drug. This is known as tolerance. More of the drug or substance is needed to get that same initial ‘high’. For many, this is an endless quest that is never again fulfilled. In addition, these brain changes may decrease the pleasure the person once received from other activities such as socializing, sex, and eating. 

As drug use continues, the brain may change in more areas. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), these can include areas that impact functions like:

  • Memory
  • Judgment
  • Decision-making
  • Stress
  • Learning
  • Behavior

No matter how much a person who has become addicted to a substance wants to stop, these changes in the brain make it very difficult to do on their own. Also, once the body has become physically addicted to a substance simply quitting ‘cold turkey’ can be dangerous, even fatal. When people with addictions try to quit on their own without professional medical support, they often relapse. Withdrawal can be so acute and difficult, the person returns to the substance in order to relieve these extreme, physical and mental, pains of withdrawal. 

For this reason, as well as others, it’s vital not to quit using alcohol or drugs suddenly. It is also highly recommended to find an addiction treatment center offering medically-supervised detox with medications available to help get through this initial—and often most trying—phase of recovery. Detox is not addiction treatment but an essential first step in a comprehensive drug or alcohol treatment rehab program. Futures offers detox led by a team of professionals, some with first-hand experience detoxing themselves, who provide the medical support and comfort to enable clients to progress through withdrawal safely and as quickly as possible. 

What Causes Addiction?

Addiction is a complex disease. There are multiple contributing factors that have a part in a person becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs. According to the NIDA these include:


Genes are responsible for about half of a person’s risk of addiction. In addition, other mental health issues, gender, and ethnicity play a role. 


Socio-economic status, overall quality of life, family relationships, friendships, and other factors in one’s environment contribute to increasing the risk of developing an addiction. Peer pressure, parental roles in the family, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse are all important components of someone developing an addiction. 


The stage of development during which a person begins using alcohol or drugs is a part of whether or not they go on to become addicted. The early in life a substance is used, the greater chance of addiction occurring. This is one reason why teens who use substances are at a higher risk of addiction. Areas of the brain that control self-control, decision-making, and judgment are not fully developed putting them at risk for trying ‘risky’ behaviors including trying drugs. 

Evidence-Based Addiction Treatment 

The advances in the understanding of addiction from scientific research have provided—and continue to provide—more prevention and treatment programs to help with recovery. Not only does research help to drive more effective treatment, but it also helps to ward off addiction early on thorough preventative measures. In fact, a study by the NIDA showed that when prevention programs were used in families, schools, communities, and by the media, they were successful in decreased rates of drug use and addiction. 

Brain science has made tremendous progress with addiction treatment too by enabling a deeper understanding of the physiological aspect of addiction. Medication-assisted treatment has grown in availability. This type of treatment helps individuals seeking recovery to navigate the first parts of withdrawal with more success. In addition, medications such as naloxone, acamprosate, and buprenorphine-naloxone can be used to help with reducing cravings for alcohol, opioids, and even tobacco. 

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans have helped in revealing connections between addiction, impulsivity, and motivation. These findings have helped the scientific community to advance treatment models that help individuals with addiction to improve self-regulation as well as motivation to stay in recovery programs.

Psychotherapy when combined with appropriate medications, has been shown to improve a person’s chance of long-term recovery. It’s also vital to address any underlying issues associated with addiction. From chronic pain issues to co-occurring mental health disorders, finding the right program that meets each person’s unique recovery needs is key in recovery. 

If you or someone you love has an addiction issue, there is hope and help is just a phone call away. Futures offers clients multiple pathways to recovery from addiction and co-occurring mental health issues. This approach paired with evidence-based medicine and compassionate, individualized care empowers clients to experience the joys of long-lasting recovery. To learn more about how Futures can help you, visit us online or call 866-804-2098.



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