Who Becomes Addicted

Who becomes addicted is a complex disease process that is best understood in a biopsychosocial model where biological, environmental, and social influences create this brain disease (Tsung et al.). While research in this area is ongoing, several findings are clear. First, genetics plays a powerful role in who becomes addicted and to what. For example, approximately 10 percent of the population has a preexisting biological, or genetic, predisposition to drug and alcohol dependency. This genetic relationship is supported by the higher concordance rates (likelihood of one twin having the condition if the other has) of substance dependence among identical twins (those who share the same genetic material), compared to fraternal twins (those with non-identical genetic material). Genetic factors underlie neurotransmitter receptor patterns in the brain that predispose a person to addiction (Rose et al.). Genetic factors are important in explaining why one person can have a drink and walk away and another person cannot stop drinking until he or she passes out.

Second, there is clearly a drug effect. That is, while all drugs impact upon similar reward properties of the brain, the pharmacological properties of some drugs are more addictive than others. Some substances such as cocaine or narcotics can cause addiction in almost anyone, regardless of genetic predisposition, if they are used frequently for a long enough time.

Third, environmental factors and drug use expectancies (i.e., motivation and intent) also play a role in the addiction process (Jang et al.). For example, rarely do cancer patients become addicts despite taking powerful doses of narcotic pain medication. Similarly, while an estimated 20 percent of American soldiers in Vietnam developed heroin addiction, 90 percent were able to give up heroin once they returned from Vietnam. An outcome rate much higher than typically seen among heroin users. Finally, as Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) proved, whether it is food and a bell or a drug and a bell, salivation is salivation. Drugs are powerful conditioners shaping behavior and responses.

Despite all of this evidence of addiction, the fields of psychiatry in particular and medicine in general have been slow to respond to the medical and societal challenges posed by addiction. Even the 2000 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-R), the bible of psychiatric diagnosis, does not mention addiction, per se, but instead discusses dependence.

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