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What’s Up with the Neuroscience of Addiction?

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

Neuroscience of Addiction

Today, we know that addiction or chemical dependence is a disease of the brain. It is more accurately known as substance use disorder. Much progress over the past decade has led to increased acceptance for the fact that substance use disorder is an illness affecting the brain like asthma is an illness affecting the lungs. However, sufferers of addiction continue to face discrimination and stigma.

Through the technological advancement in brain scans we now see what is behind this potentially deadly disease. It is not a lack of character, bad morals or bad choices but a brain that has been hijacked. The person becomes powerless over their drug of choice.

Neuroscience is helping us to understand more about chemical dependency than ever before. In his 2007 book The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment Dr. Carlton K. Erickson, a researcher and professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas noted “It is most helpful for recovering people and those who treat them to fully understand that powerlessness is not a mental or moral weakness, but rather a disease involving brain chemistry and in most cases a genetic vulnerability”.

Unfortunately, in early recovery, relapse is common. It is known that the disease is most active when the person quits. Relapse is a return to past behavior that results in using their drug of choice again. This could happen a few weeks, months or years after the person has abstained. The use of alcohol, cocaine, opiates or gambling is always preceded by behaviour that is often oblivious to the individual.

A trained and experienced therapist can help the person become aware of their behaviour. Addiction counselling is successful in providing the person tools and awareness to act on changes in behavior. Relapses can be prevented, but it often takes professional intervention. At Hasu, we are fortunate to have an extensive roster of highly experienced addiction therapists who can help with exactly that.

Many people believe when they have quit using drugs, they don’t need further help. Early recovery can be freeing and even euphoric. Confidence runs high. Unfortunately, issues float to the surface that can lead to using their “solution” to escape, to numb or to feel good. Often times, the person needs further help to find out what the “problem” is. Without ongoing support, old behaviours can return. Relapse prevention is a learned skill. To be proficient, the person needs to learn how to use and practice these skills.

In relapse behavior, there is a functional disconnect between two parts of the hijacked brain, the limbic system and the frontal cortex that assists us in decision-making and whether to act on a reward. It is described by Dr. Anna Rose Childress, a psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, as the “go” and “stop” system. She described it “as though [the systems] have become functionally disconnected. It is as though the ‘go’ system is sort of running off on its own, is a rogue system now, and is not interacting in a regular, seamless, integrated way with the ‘stop’ system”(5).

The good news, is that with diligent work, successful recovery is attainable and is observed by psychiatrists, physicians and addiction counsellors every day. Since Hasu’s inception, we have been proud to be able to help thousands of Canadians not only get sober but stay sober.

Through current research, we are discovering new medications that may help with craving and withdrawal symptoms and the results are promising. Not unlike the recommendations for clinical depression, a combination of medication and counselling would be more effective than either method alone.

It is through imaging technology such as fMRI, PET and SPECT scans that we now can see what is going on inside the brain of an alcoholic and addict. We are living in a time of technological change that will provide improved insight into the mystery of the behaviour of an alcoholic, addict or problem gambler. It is indeed possible to recover from the impact of a substance use disorder. It’s a journey rather than a destination.

Greg

Greg Rennie, BSW, RP

National Clinical Director at Hasu eCounselling

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