How Addiction Works
A behavioral principle in “operant technology” goes something like this: “If you see a behavior that you want to increase or repeat, you must pair it with a reward or reinforcement.” Addiction occurs when drug use is paired with that reward. If reward is positive enough, even adverse consequences to drug use will be overridden by reward. The disease we call addiction is such a behavior-reward process. It is characterized by a desire to receive the reward again and again, to the point of compulsivity.
We are a very concrete society in many ways. We are used to thinking of these reinforcements in concrete ways. But, reinforcement does not have to be physical. In addiction, the reinforcement may be biological. When a biological stimulant alters the synaptic pathways of the nervous system or actually alters brain chemistry, the pleasure centers of the brain may be stimulated. Such it is with addictive drugs which turn on the reward systems within our central nervous system.
Various factors either enhance or inhibit drug activity in individuals. These are often lumped into the category of “family variables.” “DNA” has made its way into the popular press and into television drama. Usually, it is DNA that “breaks the case,” “identifies the perpetrator” of a crime, or “links evidence” to a specific place or time. If we think of DNA as a long series of “on and off” switches, what we begin to understand is that it is the pattern of on and off in the switches that makes the DNA identifiable. In terms of stimulant addiction, some switches are pre-set and in terms of developing the stimulant addiction, switches that are off must be re-set to on. In terms of freedom from this addiction, some switches must be turned off for an individual to be resistant to stimulant addiction.
On the genetic level, those patterns of DNA switches appear to be passed on in families. In some genetic disorders, the genetic characteristics are subject to “penitrance.” The potential for stimulant addiction may be present in an individual, for example, but the DNA switch is not turned on. In some cases the switch is turned on by body chemistry or metabolism, by a drug introduced into the body, or by environment.
Personality Traits and Physical Body Markers
If we examine family members and their kindreds, we can ascertain which families are more susceptible to stimulant addiction than others. Recent studies by Karen Ersche and colleagues in familial genetics have uncovered a vulnerability for specific kinds of addiction like stimulant addiction in some kindreds while other familial phenotypes appear resistant to these addictions, even with regular drug use. That is, what we observe in life has direct correlations with human DNA on cellular and micro-cellular levels.
“Sensation-seeking” appears to be associated with stimulant drug problems. On the genetic level, about two out of three family members with the sensation-seeking trait demonstrate “enhanced” metabolism of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine has potential to make drug stimulation pleasurable. Environmental factors may alter the trait.
Help for Susceptible Families
Sensation-seeking may be a trait underlying some family-based addictions. Unfortunately, it is also associated with a number of very positive, socially acceptable behaviors. Sensation-seekers are the risk-takers in society and are innovators.
If a family or kindred with a propensity for stimulant addiction has an individual member who is not an addict but who is a sensation-seeker, perhaps that family may desire to seek help for its “potential addict” based on that risk-taking behavior. Certainly a psychologist, psychiatrist, or drug counselor could be sought out for advice. “Addiction services” and support groups may be investigated as well.