Debating What Causes Addiction
Seeking understanding of this often-baffling condition
If you’re an avid reader of the Huffington Post, you may have seen this well-written and touching post on what causes addiction: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered and It Is Not What You Think.” The author, who went on a 30,000 mile trip in researching his new book: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, says we’ve all been fed a lot of hooey about the real cause.
He wanted to know why some people become addicted after he had several experiences: one of his relatives overdosed and died, another became addicted to cocaine, and a lover became addicted to heroin. He spends a great deal of the blog post explaining that people become addicted when they feel a lack of connection with others.
One of the ways he bolsters his argument is by referring to a study done with rats. When a rat in a cage was given two choices of water, one laced with heroin or cocaine, it became obsessed with the latter and actually killed itself by drinking that water. But add other rats to the cage and that didn’t happen. The idea is that once the rats had a happy environment they didn’t need drugs. He quoted a professor of psychology saying that “this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain.”
With all his research on addiction, you can imagine MBRC’s Dr. Kenneth Blum’s reaction to the Huffington post. “Sorry, but this guy is wrong,” he says. “Yes, bonding and love are immensely important to people and the rat story is interesting, but it tells us nothing about the driving force behind addiction, low dopamine. We’ve proved the genetic link between addiction and a lack of dopamine; this is the relevant science. The rat park in the study may have helped the rats stay off drugs, but how strong would the hypothesis have been if it could be proven that the rats were genetically prone to drugs or alcohol?”
To get another authoritative source, I went back to the HBO series on Addiction from a few years ago and the segment on why people become addicted. Those people who have had a childhood trauma do seem to have a vulnerability to addiction that others don’t. But the series identifies this as a risk factor, along with a few others. And in the segment on Addiction and the Brain, experts say that…
“Scientists now know that addiction is the result of key changes in the brain.
For example, all drugs of abuse affect the dopamine pathway in the brain. Dopamine is a kind of neurotransmitter – a chemical produced by nerve cells that process and transmit information in the brain. The dopamine neurotransmitter’s job is to produce feelings of pleasure so this pathway is commonly known as the “pleasure pathway.”
‘What happens when people develop a substance use disorder is that they tax the ability of their dopamine system to keep up,” says Dr. Kathleen Brady, an addiction researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina. “The amount of dopamine we have in our brain is limited by the substances that the brain uses to make dopamine. And if we release it too often, we get into a situation where the brain has less dopamine. What that means is that an individual who has depleted their dopamine source in their brain has a difficult time feeling pleasure from even the normal events that would make someone happy – a mother seeing her child, or having a good meal.’”
And so their drug of choice supplies the good feeling. Seems this expert agrees with Dr. Blum.