What is Addiction?
Decades of research have revealed addiction to be a disease that alters the brain. We now know that while the initial decision to use drugs is voluntary, drug addiction is a disease of the brain that compels a person to become singularly obsessed with obtaining and abusing drugs despite their many adverse health and life consequences.
Science has come a long way in helping us understand how drugs of abuse change the brain. Research has revealed that addiction affects the brain circuits involved in reward, motivation, memory, and inhibitory control. When these circuits are disrupted, so is a person’s capacity to freely choose not to use drugs, even when it means losing everything they used to value. In fact, the inability to stop is the essence of addiction, like riding in a car with no brakes.
Drugs of abuse change the brain, and new technologies are showing us how. Indeed we’ve come a long way from this primitive depiction of a “brain on drugs.”
We can now measure the brain’s response to drugs of abuse in real time. This slide depicts images of a human brain taken at different intervals following administration of radioactive cocaine. Because the drug was “radiolabeled,” scientists can see precisely where cocaine binds in the brain (yellow signal) and for how long. Studies such as these teach scientists more about how cocaine exerts its devastating effects, and can illustrate to people in real time what happens to their brains on drugs.