Why is Addiction Referred to as a Brain Disorder?

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Why is Addiction Referred to as a Brain Disorder?

Extensive studies show that addictive chemicals cause long-lasting changes in the reward centers of the brain. This discovery raises the question, “Is addiction a brain disorder?”

The stigma surrounding drug and alcohol addiction is slowly being debunked.  In fact, for decades, most people viewed addiction as a moral failing. But, gradually, that viewpoint is changing as researchers reveal the complex connections between drug abuse and other factors that disprove the theory that addicts lack self-discipline.

Is Addiction a Brain Disorder?

Overcoming addiction is more complicated than merely deciding to quit.  Here’s why:

  • Drugs interfere with the way neurons in the brain send and receive signals.
  • Chemicals in the drugs trigger a surge in dopamine production.  This burst of dopamine tells the brain that something pleasurable happened that is worth repeating.
  • Eventually, the brain stops naturally producing dopamine, requiring the person to compensate by taking more of the drug.
  • Uncontrollable cravings and other withdrawal symptoms are produced, forcing the person to seek and consume more of their substance of choice.

Of course, the above is a simplified version of what happens in the brain when drugs are present.  But, the point is, the withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that a person can’t resist taking more of the drug.

So, why is addiction a brain disorder?  Because the normal functioning of the brain has been altered by the substance of abuse.  Consequently, an addict can no longer make sound decisions, control impulses, or regulate behavior. He or she is unable to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding activities.  Some addicts admit that they continue using the drug in a futile attempt to even feel normal. It’s no longer about fun or getting high. It’s about not feeling flat and lifeless.

What Do the Experts Say?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as primarily a brain disorder rather than a behavioral problem.

Here is what former ASAM president, Dr. Michael Miller had to say in an NBC News Report:

At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas. Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”

With this understanding of addiction, people may be more willing to help an addict seek treatment that can get on a path toward recovery.

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What About the Other Factors that Contribute to Drug Abuse?

Although the effects of drugs on the brain are the leading cause of addiction, other factors play a significant role as well.

These factors have a strong influence on a person’s willingness to experiment with drugs:

  • Genetics – Genetic factors account for almost half of the possibility that someone will develop an addiction.  Ongoing studies seek to identify the genes that lead to a person’s predisposition for drug abuse or addiction.
  • Environment – Poverty, child abuse, trauma, addicted parents, culture, and social media can play a role in a person’s drug abuse.
  • Mental disorders – Depression, stress, and low self-esteem are often present in most cases of addiction.  Also, individuals with impaired cognitive abilities often turn to drugs.
  • Peer-pressure – Most social events promote alcohol. Plus, many bars and raves are hotspots for club drug abuse.  Also, most high school and college students are prodded by friends to participate in drug or alcohol use.
  • Media – Far too many of today’s songs, movies, and TV shows promote drug and alcohol use.  Also, many popular celebrities have had their battles with addiction widely publicized.  This public display of drug abuse may contribute to a young person’s desire to give drugs a try.

The power of these external influences is far greater than a person realizes.  Unfortunately, few people recognize that these factors are making an unwanted and unhealthy impression on them until it’s too late.

Where to Go for Lasting Recovery

Is addiction a brain disorder?  At A Forever Recovery, we understand the mental, physical, and spiritual complexities of addiction and recovery.  We offer the most innovative, up-to-date and evidence-based treatment methods currently available. Contact us today to learn more.


  • psychologytoday.com – 6 Ways Your Environment is Influencing Your Addiction
  • asam.org – Definition of Addiction

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