Many former substance abusers or addicts will likely tell you that beating their addiction was the hardest thing they’ve ever done. With more research pointing to the genetic underpinnings of diseases such as alcoholism, and with more treatments aimed at the physiology–rather than psychology–of addiction, the road to sobriety could someday be less frustrating. In Scientific American‘s latest eBook, From Abuse to Recovery: Understanding Addiction, we tackle the many facets of this complex biomedical and social issue.
First, we investigate why and how many heavy drinkers and drug-users succumb to a veritable prison of the mind, with sections 1 and 2 delving respectively into the psychology and neurochemistry behind addiction. In “Time-Warping Temptations” David Freedman posits how “temporal discounting” can lead us to give into immediate impulse gratification rather than consider the long-term consequences. Later, two articles by Eric Nestler, “The Addicted Brain” and “Hidden Switches in the Mind,” break down how reward and pleasure circuits become overactive and sensitized to our drug of choice.
Subsequent sections break out potentially addictive substances individually: recreational drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol and nicotine. In “Bad Combo” Melinda Wenner Moyer looks at the death of Whitney Houston, who overdosed in February 2010 on a dangerous mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs. “Alcoholism and Our Genes” by John Nurnberger, Jr., and Laura Jean Bierut is a lengthy story exploring genetic association studies among people who meet standard psychiatric criteria for alcoholism. Because smoking is one of the hardest unhealthy habits to break, another article, “Hooked from the First Cigarette” by Joseph DiFranza, discusses exactly why this is the case for many smokers. Finally, section 7 examines new avenues for overcoming addiction. Michele Solis’s “A Lifeline for Addicts” describes addiction as an impairment of reversal learning and a consequence of rigid synapses. Studies show that these issues could potentially be treated, thus making the recovery process easier.
Addiction is costly on many levels to the afflicted individuals, their families and society as a whole, but science may soon be able to offer treatment options that focus on the physiological as well as the social and psychological realms. Whereas rehab centers, counseling and 12-step programs can be effective for some substance abusers, many social institutions rely on the false premise that these approaches are the only ways to overcome addiction and alcoholism. New research should soon advance our knowledge of addiction’s physical component, in particular, which could lead to more complete protocols that treat addiction more holistically.