The Science of Addiction

Addiction is known as both a psychological and physical dependence on a psychoactive substance. A psychoactive substance can be drugs, alcohol or tobacco. This psychoactive substance crosses over into the blood-brain barrier once taken in, and the resulting effect is the temporary altering of the brain environment. Addiction may also be seen as an ongoing involvement with a substance or even an activity, even if there are negative consequences attached to it. Addiction to a certain substance is dependent on any number of various factors. Some of these factors that can influence the strength and length of the addiction includes the time the addiction has been ongoing, the dosage, the frequency of the ingestion and the route of administration of the substance.

Drug Abuse and Addiction

Drug addiction is best defined as a relapsing disorder of a chronic nature that is typified by continued, drug-taking and drug-finding behaviors. Drug abuse is defined as a disorder that features drug addiction as a primary component of it. The definition of both drug abuse as well as drug addiction have been defined, redefined and then refined for decades. Drugs that can cause a person to become addicted include both drugs that are legal (such as over-the-counter drugs and prescription drugs) as well as drugs that are contraband. Drugs that cause addiction in a person can be stimulants (like caffeine and nicotine), hypnotics and sedatives (barbiturates and alcohol), and opiates (like heroin and morphine). The potential for the addictive strength of any given drug depends on the drug just as much as it depends on the individual herself.

Preventing Drug Abuse: The Best Strategy

Preventing drug abuse should start when a person is relatively young: when she is still an adolescent. Drug abuse happens most oftentimes during times of transition and change, such as a young person moving to a new school or a new neighborhood. Teens are at greater risk of drug use because of their natural tendency to try new things or take risks, along with the move into new experiences and stimulations, both academically as well as socially. One approach to preventing drug abuse early, among adolescents, is to incorporate science-validated, substance abuse program in local communities as well as schools. These programs—such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) programs designed for kids and adolescents—have been scientifically proven to produce results with regards to preventing drug abuse among young people.

Drugs and The Brain: No one wins

Drugs affect the brain by getting to the brain’s communication system and then disrupting the normal way that the brain’s nerve cells send, get and interpret information. Some potent drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, are even able to provoke neurons due to the fact that their chemical structure is like a natural neurotransmitter. This similarity in their chemical structures actually dupes nerve receptors and encourages the drugs to both lock into and then stimulate the actual nerve cells. Drugs are so addictive because they provoke the pleasure circuit in the brain, which leads to the vicious cycle of continued drug abuse.

Addiction and Health

Being addicted to drugs equals long-term abuse of drugs, and this long-term abuse of drugs can lead to eventual damage of the brain. The cognitive brain function of a person is bound to get impaired and damaged with prolonged drug use. Other parts of the body will be injured and damaged, too, as a result of long-term drug use, and some examples of consequential problems that can arise are cardiovascular disease, lung disease, mental disorders, cancer and stroke. Different drugs do different sorts of damage to different parts of the body. For instance, the drugs known as inhalants are deadly to nerve cells and might kill the ones in the brain or in the peripheral nervous system. Mental disorders may precede the act of drug abuse, or mental disorders may even be incurred in a person who starts using drugs in a long-term fashion.

Treatment and Recovery

Despite all the grave effects that drug abuse and drug addiction can wreak on a person, drug addiction is classified as a completely treatable disease. New discoveries in the science of addiction have empowered self-destructive drug users to resume productive and healthy lives, even after years of chronic abuse of drugs. While addiction can be treated, it is enormously important to make an important distinction between drug addiction being treatable and between drug addiction being curable. Drug addiction is a chronic disease, one that can be managed with success, and treatment empowers people to fight back against the extremely powerful effects of drugs on the brain and behavior. People have to be mindful of the grim fact that a relapse into abusing drug is always a likelihood, even after a person has become clean for a certain period of time. As such, the treatment for a chronic disease such as drug addiction involves altering deeply imbedded habits and behaviors, which may even mean the need to go to therapy.

Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

Most people assume that alcoholism and alcohol abuse are one in the same issue when in fact they are two very different drinking problems. Alcoholism is when an individual shows signs of physical addiction and continues to drink regardless if they hurt themselves or others. Alcohol at this point is controlling their lives and their relationships on a physical, mental, social and emotional level. They have become dependent on alcohol so much that it is more necessary than anything else in their lives. Alcohol abuse is when drinking leads to problems, but not a physical addiction.

Causes and Risks

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism have no known cause, but medical research does suggest the possibility that certain genes may increase the risk or alcoholism. Research does not however yield the fact of which genes they are or how they work in this particular manner.


There are various symptoms of people who have alcoholism or alcohol abuse. Some of these symptoms may include on or more of the following:

*Drinks alone

*Drinks continuously regardless of further harm to health, work, or the family that may be involved

*Makes excuses and even becomes hostile when asked about drinking

*They need alcohol to get through the day

*Does not eat healthy or at all

*Tries to hide alcohol use

*They may shake after long periods of non-drinking

*Decreased performances at work or school due to poor attendance from drinking 

*Needs more and more alcohol to feel incapacitated

Alcohol and the Brain

Alcohol is a depressant and directly affects the central nervous system. On a microscopic level, alcohol is a very small molecule and is very soluble in water and lipid (fats, oils, waxes, etc.). These characteristics allow alcohol to get into the bloodstream very easily while also being able to cross the blood brain barrier. Some of the affects include: a higher turnover rate of norepinephrine and dopamine, increased rates in the transmission of GABA systems and the production of beta-endorphin in the hypothamalmus, and finally decreased transmission in the acetylcholine systems. Individuals who continue to drink alcohol that leads to dependence and addiction will develop more serious neurological problems as time elapses. Some common symptoms are tremors from alcohol withdrawal, sleeping problems, and nausea. Some more severe symptoms include hallucinations, damage to the frontal lobes of the brain, decrease in brain size and an increase in ventricles, as well as a vitamin deficiency syndrome called Wernicke's Encephalopathy. This syndrome is a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). A person may also develop Korsakoff's Syndrome which causes amnesia, apathy and disorientation. Usually they will develop Korsakoff's syndrome after the Wernicke's encephalopathy symptoms have already disappeared. 

Tests, Treatments, and Prevention

In order for an individual to get help they must first seek their health care provider and receive a physical exam. There will be many questions that will be asked regarding, drinking habits and how it has been affecting an individuals life. Tests that may be conducted by a health care provider may consist of the following: blood alcohol level, complete blood count, liver function, and magnesium blood tests. At this point the health care provider will give the individual the diagnosis on their health and how drinking in excess is negatively affecting their body.

The ultimate goal of any alcohol treatment is to stop the complete use of alcohol. Abstinence is the term used to describe an individual who has overcome some sort of substance abuse and is completely clean. A strong support system is also very important for the individual who is struggling to overcome their addiction. There are many support programs that an individual can go to to stop drinking completely including Alcoholics Anonymous, and Moderation Management. In some cases medications are prescribed to prevent an individual from drinking again. Acamprosate may help slower the relapse rates of an alcohol dependent. Disulfiram is a drug that produces unplesant side affects if an individual were to drink even a small amount of alcohol. Naltrexone will help to decrease alcohol cravings.  

In order to prevent the abuse of alcoholism or even the development of alcoholism the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women should not drink more than one drink per day and men should not drink more than 2 drinks per day. One drink consists of the following: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Individuals with a family history of alcoholism or abuse are advised to stick to these recommendations to avoid addiction.


Any addiction can lead to increased complications of health problems and even disease. Drinking while pregnant can lead to severe birth defects in the baby and even cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse can lead to any of the following:

*Heart, Nerve, and Brain Cell Damage

*Cancer of the esophagus, colon, liver

*Poor nutrition

*Liver disease

*Inflammation of the pancreas

*Depression and suicide 


Tobacco products such as cigars, cigarettes, and even smokeless tobacco can all lead to addiction. Nicotine is the drug in tobacco that makes them so addictive. A smoker will inhale about 1 to 2 milligrams of nicotine from each cigarette which can easily make them addicted. Nicotine is only one of over 4,000 poisonous chemicals found in the smoke of tobacco products including smokeless tobacco. Nicotine causes changes in the brain that make a smoker want to use it more often to receive the continued affects. Carbon monoxide, tar, and acetaldehyde are just a few of the poisons that make their way into a smoker's body every time they inhale or chew a tobacco product. Carbon monoxide alone causes heart problems, which is just one reason why smoker's are at an increased risk of heart disease.

Tobacco and the Body

Each time a person smokes a cigarette, the body immediately responds from the influx of nicotine from the smoke. It takes only 8 seconds for the nicotine to affect the brain. There is a short-term increase in blood pressure which causes the the heart rate to increase and the arteries to narrow. Carbon monoxide enters the blood and reduces the amount of oxygen the blood normally carries throughout the body and to the demanding cells. Nicotine attaches to cholinergic receptors on neurons that release dopamine. Dopamine is what is released during a pleasurable experience. One reason why smoking is continuously addictive as it gives the person a "feel good" feeling each and everytime the smoke a cigarette. The effect wears off rapidly which is another reason why smokers will often light up another cigarette.

Smoking increases the chance of having hardened arteries and heart attacks. Carbon monoxide damages the inner walls of the arteries which causes fatty buildups to occur. Over time the vessels will narrow and harden and restrict even more oxygen enriched blood. Nicotine may also contribute to these factors. Individuals who continue to use tobacco for long periods of time will become addicted. Nicotine is absorbed into the brain quickly but it also disappears quickly causing the user to want to increase their dose in order to continue to get those "feel good" feelings. A tolerance develops over the course of a day from continued use of tobacco. Although the tolerance of an individual will decrease over night, the cycle will start again when they smoke their first cigarette when they wake up. The user would have gone longer without a cigarette and the feeling they will receive from the first initial use will be that much better, hence why tobacco is so addictive. Nicotine is even more addictive than crack or heroin. 

Tobacco harms ever organ in the body and has been linked to leukemia, cataracts; cancer of the mouth, stomach, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, pancreas, cervix, kidney, ureter, and bladder. Tobacco causes over one-third of all cancer deaths; over half a million Americans die as a result. It also causes smokers to lose their sense of smell and taste as well as their energy levels.

Tobacco also affects those who do not even smoke. Secondhand smoke is when a non-smoker inhales the poisonous smoke that a smoker exhales and the smoke that comes from the end of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. A person who regularly inhales secondhand smoke is nearly 30% more likely to develop heart disease and lung cancer. It is estimated that 40,000 deaths related to heart disease and 3,000 deaths related to lung disease were from secondhand smoke. Children subjected to secondhand smoke have an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections and ear problems. Dropped cigarettes are also one of the top leading causes of house fire fatalities, with more than 1,000 deaths ever year.

Treatment and Quitting

There are fortunately treatments for tobacco addiction that have yielded positive results. Quitting is the process in which a tobacco user must go through but it is never an easy process and most cannot do it without help from others or even their health care provider.

Quitting tobacco use is the best way for the body to start healing, however it is the most difficult process a tobacco user must endure. They will first experience withdrawal symptoms which in many cases will cause them to go back to using tobacco products again. Some withdrawal symptoms include: irritability, increased appetite, cravings, and having a hard time sleeping. Withdrawal symptoms will usually subside within a few weeks as long as the individual discontinues tobacco use. They hardest part for an individual trying to quit to get through is the behaviors associated with tobacco use. For example they may be the type of smoker that lights up after a meal or when out with friends. Some of these triggers can have an even bigger affect on the individual who is trying so hard to quit.

There are behavioral treatment programs that help smokers learn how to change their behaviors in order to prevent the urge to pick up smoking again. There are "quitlines," self-help books and even individual therapy. There are also over-the-counter medications that replace the nicotine and ease the symptoms of withdrawal. Research has proven that individuals who have medication and behavioral treatments have the most success of quitting tobacco.

Quitting smoking will immediately give any person health benefits. Within 24 hours the tobacco user's blood pressure and chance of a heart attack decreases. Over time the individual will have less of a chance of having a stroke, getting cancer or dying earlier than their time.

Advancing Addiction Science and Practical Solutions

In order to look at all factors of addiction and its harmful consequences, successful research programs include fundamental studies of the behavior and the addicted brain to examinations of health research services. Organizations like the NIDA come up with both treatment as well as prevention programs to help advance the understanding of the science of addiction and the practical solutions that people who are addicted are looking for. They also develop materials and initiatives that they target to the students and teachers of grade, middle and high schools, all for the purpose of warning at-risk youths about the very real risks of drug, alcohol and tobacco addiction and the ease of getting addicted. The public also has to be involved in advancing the science behind drug addiction as well as any practical solutions to help out those addicted. In reference to this, the NIDA has begun sharing information that is free with the public courtesy of its website, but also through conferences and seminars to a professional audience.

To understand more about addiction of drugs, alcohol and tobacco please see these links:

 What is Behind Addiction?

 NIDA Website

 All About the Human Brain

 Drug Abuse and Alcohol Abuse in Adolescents

 SAMHSA Website


 Drugs and the Brain’s Pathway

 Comprehending Drug Addiction

 What is Drug Abuse?

 Treating Substance Abuse

 The Facts on Drug Addiction

 Drug Addiction Signs and Symptoms

 Drug Addiction Information

 Devastation of Drug Addiction

 Drug Addiction Details

 Causes of Drug Addiction

 Drug Impact on Society

 Is Drug Addiction a Brain Disease?

 Drug Abuse in America

 Drug Addiction Explored

 Drug Addiction – Understanding It


What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol and Teens

Alcohol and the Brain

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

More info on Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


Nicotine Addiction

Teens and Smoking

Tobacco Addition Facts

Tobacco and Cancer

Support Groups

Alcoholics Anonymous


SMART Recovery


Women for Sobriety

Moderation Management

Project Know

Treatment Solutions Network

US Drug Rehab Centers

Why Quit