Why the addiction-brain connection has to be part of the addiction treatment picture

Dr. Dodes recent article, apparently trying to blow up the myth of addiction as a neurophysiological disorder, sounded persuasive, although its underpinning was oversimplified and it’s understanding of the brain-science involved in addiction, and other associated mental health disorders, was lacking. Hopefully, by presenting a more complete picture of the evidence for a brain-aspect to addiction, I can un-bias the discussion somewhat. I, for one, don’t believe that neuroscience will ever be the only factor important in addiction – an individual’s environment, social influences, and other factors will always end up playing important parts as well – still, I think that to dismiss all of the evidence for biological factors at play in the development of addiction is foolhardy. Especially when there’s so much of it that was glossed over in Dr. Dodes’ introduction.

Pleasure center activation is only part of the picture in addiction

Firstly, supporters of the notion that addiction is, at least partly, an outcome of specific brain function point not only to pleasure center activation, but also to a whole host of findings showing genetic variability that is either protective from, or a risk factor for, dependence on drugs and likely also behavioral addiction like eating disorders, compulsive gambling, and maybe sex addiction as well (you can start out looking up ALDH2-2 variability and alcoholism and cocaine addiction, DRD4 and stimulant addiction, and many more).

While it is true that all those who consume addictive substance activate the brain similarly, there are considerable differences in the specific of that activation in reaction to drugs. Some release more dopamine while others have more “active” versions of specific important receptors; neurotransmitter recycling is quick in some, but not all, and drug metabolism is different in different individuals in ways that have been shown to be important not just for addiction risk, but also for the probability of treatment success. Just look at the nicotine and CPY26 literature for an example. It’s right there.

Additionally an entire body of literature exists that shows differential activation, as well as structural differences, between addicts and non-addicts in regions as varied as the OFC, PFC, Insula, and more. This is not to mention a slew of evidence that shows different behavioral test performance on risk-taking, impulsivity, and delay-discounting, all personality variables highly associated with addiction. If one simply ignore all of this evidence, it may be easy to believe that there is no biological explanation for these phenomena, but that’s just wrong.

To say that mesolimbic activation (what the good doctor called “pleasure centers”) is the only evidence for physiological factors in addiction is dismissive at best.

Drug addiction develops in only some drug users

The notion that not everyone who takes drugs becomes addicted is nothing close to evidence against a brain explanation for addiction. Everyone’s motor–cortex, striatum, and substantia nigra (the areas of the brain responsible for movement) activate in the same way during movement, but only a small group ends up suffering from Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disorders. One fact does not preclude the other but instead may specifically point to the fact the group which develops the disorder has somewhat different neurological functioning. Researchers aren’t concerned with explaining why all individuals can become addicted to drugs, but rather why that small subgroup develops compulsive behavior. A short reading of the literature makes that fact pretty clear. Additionally, while Dr. Dodes’ claims otherwise, imaging technology HAS produced evidence explaining this “mystery”, including differences in the ways addicted smokers respond to smoking-related triggers, and an increased dopamine response in cocaine addicts to cues, and well as to cocaine.

As mentioned in the motor disorder section above, ingestion of chemicals is not at all necessary for brain disorders to occur or indeed develop later in life. Dr. Dodes example of shifting addiction could be used as evidence for an underlying neurological difference just as well as it would serve to make his point… Or even better. If there’s a faulty basic mechanism attached to rewarding behaviors, it doesn’t really matter what the behavior is, does it? Sex addiction, gambling, and more can all be explained using a similar mechanism, though drugs of abuse may just have a more direct impact. I know, I’ve written about them all.

The Vietnam vet heroin story used by Dr. Dodes as evidence that emotional, rather than physiological, factors are responsible for addiction actually fits right in line with the notion of predisposition and underlying differences, and I’m surprised to hear a physician point to group differences as an indicator of no neurobiological basis. Indeed, when it comes to the emotional reactivity associated with drug associated cues, normal learning literature, as well as drug-specific learning research, has revealed over and over that drug-related stimuli activate brain regions associated with drug reward in the same way that natural-reward predictors do for things like food and sex. Once again, these facts are part of the basic understanding of the neuroscience of learning, with or without drug abuse involvement.

My own dissertation work shows that it is very likely that only a subsection of those exposed to nicotine will develop abnormal learning patterns associated with that drug. However, among those, learning about drug-related stimuli (as in “triggers”) continues in an exaggerated manner long after the other “normal” animals have stopped learning. That sort of difference can lead to a seriously problematic behavioral-selection problem whereby drug-related stimuli are attended to, and pursued, more so than other,  non-drug-related ones. If that sounds familiar, it should, since drug users continuously pursue drug-associated activities and exposures in a way that seems irrational to the rest of the world. It just might be due to such a mechanism and others like it.

Some important points about science in Dr. Dodes’ article

One very true fact about mental health pointed out by Dr. Dodes is that diseases like schizophrenia, which used to be explained simply as demon possession and evidence of witchcraft can now be, to a large extent, explained by the study of behavioral neuroscience and cognition. The same is true for bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, and a host of other such conditions. In fact, the study of psychology has only been able to rely on technological advances that allow us to “see” brain function for a few short decades, leading to incredible advances in the field that I think will continue. The thinking that no such advances have, or will continue to be, made in the study of addiction is, in my opinion short sighted.

As I mentioned above, I don’t for a second think that the entire explanation for drug abuse and addiction will come from neurophysiological evidence. The doctor points out that “If we could take a more accurate image of addiction in the brain, it would encompass much of the history and many of the events that make us who we are.” I agree that we need to advance our technology as well as expand our understanding, but I think that to discount neuroscientific explanations completely is a big mistake.

6 Replies to “Why the addiction-brain connection has to be part of the addiction treatment picture”

  1. We understand very little about neurotransmitters. Of more than 60 neurotransmitters we know a little about 3 or 4. It is wonderful to think we could find a simple answer but it if it is possible it is likely decades down the road.

    What we do know should include the influences of behavior on how brain chemistry is altered. I agree with your assessment regarding environmental influences. Addiction is still best understood as biological, psychological and sociological.

    1. “We understand very little about neurotransmitters.”
      This is true. We understand very little about neurotransmitters and brain in general. We still have tons of things to research and discover.

      “Addiction is still best understood as biological, psychological and sociological.”

      I also agree with this. It is important to take all three factors in mind if we want better understanding about addiction.

    2. Dear Wendell,
      I agree with your final statement that addiction is best conceived as a multifaceted issue. However, I have to disagree with your initial assertion that we know very little about neurotransmitters. If you’d said that we “know relatively little about the complete picture of brain function” I would have agreed, but your statement is far too simplistic.
      For example you pointed out that there are dozens of neurotransmitters but that you believe we only understand 3-4 of them. First of all, the are a host of neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and hormones used to communicate messages between our brain and body. But we know a lot about far more than 3-4 of them. You’re probably referring to Dopamine, Serotonin, and Adrenaline(?) Let me walk you through some more: Glutamate, GABA, Norepinephrine, Epinephrine, Endorphins, Enkephalins, Anandamine (your body’s version of THC), and Acetylcholine. While there are certainly more, we know quite a bit about those 10-15 (different enkephalins and endorphins) not to mention a good amount about the receptors they pair with to perform their actions.
      Bottom line? We know quite a bit about neuro-transmission but still have a lot to learn. That is a much fairer statement.

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