Some people think that people who abuse substances make the choice to abuse drugs or alcohol and that addiction is simply a convenient excuse for otherwise unacceptable behavior.
What actually happens in the brain of an addict is complicated. It is true that the initial decision to take drugs or drink alcohol is a voluntary choice. In people with addiction, exposure to drugs or alcohol creates changes in the brain that lead the substance user to seek more alcohol or drugs.
Use of alcohol and other drugs disrupts the body’s process of creating dopamine and other brain chemicals. Substances in the body cause the brain to produce too much dopamine or reduce its ability to properly recycle and remove the neurotransmitter dopamine. The result is an over stimulated reward center in the brain as dopamine floods the brain. In short, using drugs or alcohol feels good; resulting in a desire to experience it again is actually a chemical reaction.
The brain of an individual under addiction adapts to the dopamine surges either by reducing the number of receptors in the reward center or by producing less dopamine. In order to feel a previously normal amount of pleasure and enjoyment the user must use even larger quantities of the drug. In the cycle of addiction, the more the user abuses drugs or alcohol, the more the brain changes in response to the substance abuse.
What started as a simple choice to drink or use drugs becomes a debilitating brain disease that many addicts have difficulty overcoming.
Family and Addiction
Addiction is a serious problem made worse by the fact that the risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction is largely genetic.
In The Genetics of Alcohol and Other Drug Dependence, Dr. Danielle M. Dick and Dr. Arpana Agrawal state, “In recent years, researchers have identified numerous genes as affecting risk for dependence on alcohol and drugs. These include genes involved in alcohol metabolism as well as in the transmission of nerve cell signals and modulation of nerve cell activity.”
This leads to an important question. If drug and alcohol addiction have genetic causes, what can a teen whose parent(s) is/are addicts do to prevent themselves from also becoming an addict?
Many people simply hope that they will have the willpower to avoid addiction. This is not an effective strategy. Some people’s brains and bodies react to drugs and alcohol differently than other people’s brains and bodies.
Willpower can help a person avoid becoming an addict or alcoholic only under one circumstance: when the individual uses willpower to avoid taking the first drink of alcohol or using a drug for the first time.
Once a potentially addictive substance enters the body, the question of dependence and addiction is decided by the brain. In many cases where an individual has a family history of addiction, that individual will become addicted to alcohol or drugs if exposed to those substances.
A Scandinavian study of twins shows a high correlation between substance abuse and addiction in one or both parents and, later, substance abuse or addiction in one or both twins.
Studies of adopted children of alcoholics are even more striking. Boys adopted as infants were studied into adulthood. The alcoholism or lack thereof from adopted parents made no difference in the risk of alcoholism for the boys. However, boys whose biological fathers were alcoholics were four times more likely to become alcoholics than the boys whose fathers were not alcoholics.
Heredity is not the only component in addiction
It is a very important component, however, and the best protection children of alcoholics and addicts have against becoming addicted is to avoid addictive substances.
If you or someone you love suffers from addiction, please let us help. Contact our addiction hotline today to learn what we can do for you.