Disease Model of Addiction

Substance Use is Not a Moral Failure

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Disease Model of Addiction

Substance Use is Not a Moral Failure

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Disease Model of Addiction

Addiction is a serious problem that deserves the attention of society. By providing further education and working to eradicate the stigma that surrounds addiction, we can create a more open atmosphere in which people can feel welcome to share. By sharing struggles, individuals can get the support and treatment that they need. Let’s discuss the disease model of addiction and its details.

Chemical/Biological Focus

The disease model of addiction focuses on the chemical/biological issues of substance abuse. Substance abuse has biological, environmental, genetic, and neurological factors. Substance abuse is a progressive, chronic, and ultimately if left untreated, fatal disorder. By focusing on the physical causes of addiction, and eliminating the flawed morality model, we can greatly improve recovery from substance use disorders.

Addiction’s Three Main Pathways

Researchers focus on three main pathways for addiction:1

  1. Desensitization of reward circuits in the brain
  2. Increases in actions related to compulsions to the substance
  3. Declining function in decision making and self-regulation

Addiction is a serious medical problem and not a moral weakness. Shifting public perception will save lives and transform how substance use disorders are treated.

Learn More About Healing the Brain


  • Holistic Approach
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Positive Psychology

Why Should We Use the Disease Model of Addiction

The disease model of addiction recognizes many different contributing factors for addiction. It is important to know that having a substance use disorder or addiction doesn’t mean that you are weak or worse than anyone else. It is a medical problem like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

Disease Model Allows for Elimination of Addiction

The mainstream view that addiction is permanent can prevent someone from starting treatment. Showing that addiction is treatable, and can be eliminated, will cause more people to seek the help that could save their life. There are many treatment options and trained addiction professionals for support.

The Complexity of Addiction

Addiction disease models must be comprehensive and acknowledge all the reasons that addiction starts. People may want simple answers, but there are too many factors that make up addiction to simplify it and still provide effective treatment. Simplifying addiction does not allow for an authentic, accurate portrayal of someone suffering from addiction.

A Focus on the Brain

The disease model of addiction places emphasis on the brain chemistry that is involved in addiction. By understanding how the brain is impacted, we gain a clearer understanding of this complex topic. The brain works in many ways. The most important ways for addiction are the brain’s decision-making and impulse-controlling functions. When these two things are tampered with, the results can be devasting.

As the brain’s ability to make decisions and control impulses is chemically reduced, the room is made for a serious addiction to grow unchecked. This biological process will appear to be a matter of free will and bad choices, but, in reality, someone with an addiction has little ability to choose. The brain makes the decisions for them. If addiction is not caused by free will and bad choices, it can no longer be viewed as a moral failing.

“Hijacking” Neural Circuits

Dr. Volkow, a medical professional working with the addiction disease model, has learned extensively about how the brain’s ability to adapt is crucial.2 She says, “the neuroplasticity that underlies learning is fundamental. Our reward and self-control circuits evolved precisely to enable us to discover new, important, healthy rewards, remember them, and pursue them single-mindedly; drugs are sometimes said to “hijack” those circuits.”

Neural circuits and neural pathways are important to the working of our brain; when those neural circuits and neural pathways are impacted by addictive substances, the brain may begin to establish a reward system, leading to dependence on those substances. Dependence makes it almost impossible to simply choose to recover from addiction. The underlying biochemical damage must be treated to eliminate addiction in recovery.

The Root of Addiction

Drugs are addictive. Nobody can say that drugs are not addictive, but there is still some debate about the root of addiction and its impacts. The disease model of addiction looks at the brain to understand the fundamentals of addiction and the ways that drugs impact the body. Brain chemistry behind learning can be a major player in the development of addiction. If your model of addiction omits or reduces the biochemical processes in the brain, that model will be flawed and remove the most important factor in developing an addiction.

Environmental and Social Factors

There are still some who do not believe in addiction as a brain disease. Some say that it minimizes the environmental and social roles in addiction. Dr. Volkow refutes this by saying, “as though saying addiction is a disorder of brain circuits means that social stresses like loneliness, poverty, violence, and other psychological and environmental factors do not play an important role. In fact, the dominant theoretical framework in addiction science today is the biopsychosocial framework, which recognizes the complex interactions between biology, behavior, and environment.” Even still, the disease model of addiction is benefited from the knowledge that has been found by examining the brain.

Biochemical Changes in the Addicted Brain

Some may be surprised to learn that there are brain changes that come with addiction. Addiction is like any other disease in that it is a dysfunction of a part of the body. In the case of addiction, the organ impacted is the brain. This is part of the reason why modern scientists classify addiction as a disease.

Brain Imaging Shows Changes

The disease model of addiction understands that addiction alters the brain, and those impacts can have widespread results. Brain imaging has provided valuable insight into how addiction changes the brain. Brain images taken of those struggling with drug addiction show physical changes in the brain in parts related to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Scientists found that these changes alter the way the brain works, helping to explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors associated with addiction.

Interference of Brain Signals

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse “drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body. This allows the drugs to attach onto and activate the neurons.”3

This “tricks” the body and manipulates the brain’s chemistry and in turn, its functioning. This can create a dependence on drugs to create the same feelings that the neurotransmitters would. When tolerance occurs, more and more of the substance is needed to feel the same effects, starting the cycle of addiction.

Healing the Addicted Brain

The disease concept of addiction allows for hope, as there are changes that can be made to heal the brain. Like many diseases, recovery is possible with treatment.

Amino Acids

One of the most promising treatments involves the use of amino acids. Amino acids can function as incredibly strong repair systems and help the brain return to the way that it functioned before addiction. Utilizing amino acids has proven to help in the recovery process and takes advantage of the brain’s ability to adapt, also known as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity allows the brain to rewire itself and make new connections. This is a powerful tool to overcome the biochemical damage addiction causes. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to learn new things and alter the way that it does certain processes.

Adding depleted amino acids during recovery helps the process of healing the brain and making the new connections neuroplasticity allows. This aspect of recovery is often overlooked. How do you heal an injury if the material needed for healing isn’t present? Amino acid IV treatment during recovery recognizes this issue and provides the building blocks for recovery.

Moral vs. Disease Models of Addiction

Addiction is not a moral choice. Viewing addiction as a moral choice fails to consider the large variety of factors that can be present in addiction. The stigma of addiction has played into the moral viewpoint, as many people think that addiction is the result of personality or weakness.
Understanding and communicating the brain’s role in addiction is an important step in reducing the stigma of addiction and spreading awareness that addiction can be healed. When the stigma of addiction has been removed, more people can feel accepted and get treatment for their addiction.

Resources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6135257/
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2018/03/what-does-it-mean-when-we-call-addiction-brain-disorder
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain

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