What causes a man to risk losing his family or worse his freedom for the ability to get high? What causes a parent to risk not only their own health by smoking but also the health of their children? The answer is addiction. Alan I. Leshner, PhD states that the “essence of addiction [is an] uncontrollable, compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative health and social consequences. ” He goes on to say, “This is the crux of how many professional organizations all define addiction, and how we all should use the term.
It is really only this expression of addiction – uncontrollable, compulsive craving, seeking and use of drugs – that matters to the addict and to his or her family, and that should matter to society as a whole. These are the elements responsible for the massive health and social problems caused by drug addiction. ” (Leshner) There are many different terms that are used to describe drug addiction such as substance abuse, or chemical dependency but the truth is they do not all have the same meaning or definition.
Drug addiction is the result of the transition from casual user to compulsive user and it is characterized by neurological and psychological changes in the brain. One theory that is used to explain this transition is “the traditional hedonic view that drug pleasure and subsequent unpleasant withdrawal symptoms are the chief causes of addiction. ” (Robinson, et al. ) This theory hypothesizes that people begin taking drugs casually because they make them feel good and they continue to take drugs compulsively to avoid the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that occur when the drugs are no longer taken. (Robinson, et al. “All drugs of abuse cause certain common effects after both acute and chronic exposure. All drugs of abuse converge on a common circuitry in the brain’s limbic system and prolonged use can cause permanent physical changes at the cellular and molecular level of brain functioning. ” (Nestler)
The Harvard Mental Health Letter states that , “repeated exposure to an addictive substance causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex […] to communicate in a way that links pleasure with desire and action […] and the hippocampus and the amygdale store information about the environmental cues associated with the esired substance. ” The authors of the Harvard Mental Health Letter believe that these memories create a conditioned response that reoccurs whenever those environmental cues are present causing a craving or intense desire for the drug that is associated with those cues. This leads to another theory known as incentive sensitization. “The central idea [of this theory] is that addictive drugs enduringly alter NAcc-related brain systems that mediate a basic incentive-motivational function, the attribution of incentive salience.
As a consequence, these neural circuits may become enduringly hypersensitive to specific drug effects and to drug-associated stimuli and that can cause a pathological “wanting” to take drugs. ” (Robinson, et al. ) Robinson states that this wanting can cause and direct behavior without a conscious emotion, desire or declarative goal. The two major classes of drug effects that are sensitized by addictive drugs are psychomotor activating effects and incentive motivational effects. (Robinson, et al. ) Psychomotor sensitization has been found to be extremely enduring and can last years after the drug treatment has ended. Robinson, et al. ) This sensitization is related to physical changes that occur in the brain after prolonged drug use. Robinson and Berridge believe that sensitization of incentive salience attribution to representations of drug cues and drug-taking that causes the compulsive pursuit of drugs and persisting vulnerability to relapse in addiction. This theory believes that sensitization enhances the ability of certain environmental cues associated with the drug use to cause cravings that can lead to compulsive behaviors in pursuit of drugs.
For example, a woman quits smoking for 10 years the withdrawal symptoms are long since gone, she’s overcome the physical habit of smoking and holding a cigarette in her hand on a daily basis and then one day she’s standing outside a restaurant and the smoke from another patrons cigarette blows by and she is overwhelmed with the need and desire for a cigarette. Or a drug addict in recovery who happens to pass the alley where he used to get high and he is over come with the need and desire to find a fix. The environmental cues evoke memories that cause compulsive reactions to occur without conscious knowledge of the participant.
A third theory proposes that “habit formation and maintenance are two essential components of drug addiction. ” (Newlin, et al. ) In this theory the casual drug initiates or creates the habit and the transition to addiction is also a transition to habit maintenance. The habit theory also refers to environmental cues that are associated with an individual’s drug use. Newlin, et al. state that drug liking changes with addiction to drug “wanting” and to “needing”. They further state that the drug use “becomes semi-autonomous and partially or wholly divorced from the motivational processes that originally promoted it. Newlin, et al. ) In other words it takes on “a life of its own” a mundane habit that is neither pleasurable nor exciting. (Newlin, et al. ) Newlin and his colleagues theorize that humans and mammals in general adapt to survive and some of the habits that are formed are a means of survival. In their theory they propose that drug use can become a habit as a means of survival for someone who becomes chemically dependent. They argue that habits such as eating, tying a shoe, sleeping, breathing, and walking are fundamental to human functioning.
Whether the addiction is a means to avoid the unpleasantness of withdrawal, a consequence of sensitization, or a habit derived as a means of survival for someone who has become chemically dependent, the end result remains the same. Physical, neurological, and psychological changes take place when illicit drugs are used and these changes can cause permanent and devastating consequences for the user and their loved ones. Drug addicts have a single focus and that is their next high or their next fix. They don’t care who they have to beg, borrow, or steal from to get it. They don’t care who they hurt or what they have to do to get it.
The nature of the drug addict is to maintain their desired high for as long and as often as possible despite the consequences of their actions. Many examples of addiction exist in society today. The alcoholic who drives from point a to point b because he has run out of alcohol to drink doesn’t give a thought to who he might injure or kill while he’s behind the wheel. His only focus is obtaining more alcohol. The drug addict who spends his entire paycheck on a weekend binge doesn’t think about his wife and children that he left at home with no groceries, no money, and no vehicle to get anywhere.
The girl on the street who turns to prostitution to support her habit doesn’t think about what she is doing to buy her next fix. The teenager who steals prescription medication from his parents doesn’t care that they may experience physical as well as emotional pain as a consequence of his actions. There are numerous examples of addicts who seem to do heartless things as a means to support their habit, but that doesn’t make them heartless people. Addiction is a disease that some people are more susceptible to. It does not make them evil or heartless but it may lead them to do evil or heartless things.
As the above theories have pointed out there are several valid theories about the causes of addiction. The continued use to avoid the pain of withdrawal, the sensitization that causes the person to suffer from cravings, or the formation of a habit as a means of survival, whatever the cause may be, the reality is clear. Addiction is the result of neurological and psychological changes that occur in the brain a physical change in the brains functioning that can “take on a life of its own” causing uncontrollable and compulsive behavior.
Nestler, Eric. (2005). Is there a common molecular pathway for addiction? Nature Neuroscience. Vol. 8 (11) pp. 1445-1449 Newlin, David. and Strubler, Kevin. (2007). The Habitual Brain: An “Adapted Habit” Theory of Substance Use Disorders. Substance Use and Misuse, 42: 503-526. Robinson, Terry and Berridge, Kent. (2003). Addiction. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 54: 25-53 Why addiction causes craving. Harvard Mental Health Letter. www. health. harvard. edu. 2010.