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Becoming addicted is gradual process involving the interplay of genetic factors, early experiences, and the effects of potentially addictive substances and experiences on specific brain systems over time.


Compounds and experiences with addictive potential activate the brain’s reward circuitry. These triggers are also called reinforcers because the pleasurable feeling we get from them makes us more likely to engage in them again. Both alcohol and illicit drugs are powerful reinforcers, as are food, sex, and gambling. These substances and experiences cause the release of large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain’s reward system. Heightened levels of dopamine over long periods of time produce structural and chemical adaptations in these circuits as the brain tries to regain a state of balance. These adaptations ultimately underlie behaviours like bingeing, escalating use, and symptoms of withdrawal when the drugs or experiences are taken away.


Another brain system changed by addictive behaviours is the air traffic control system (also called the “executive function” system) in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The ability to resist strong urges or to follow through on decisions to stop an addictive behaviour may be impaired in the addicted brain. Thus, although a person may be sincere about intending to stop a behaviour, he or she may find that a weakened air traffic control system saying “stop” is overpowered by an altered reward-and-motivation system that causes powerful cravings for the addictive substance or activity. Appropriate treatment can help improve functioning of the air traffic control circuits, thus helping a person regain control.


Research has now shown that children with poor impulse control, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may also be at risk for addiction. These children may engage in risky behaviours at earlier ages and more frequently than other children. From a prevention perspective, understanding the factors that contribute to developing an addiction is crucial so that we can monitor and mitigate risk appropriately. Read more about childhood ADHD and future addiction (third-party research).


Research shows that substance and behavioural addictions can occur within the same individual and that multiple variants of substance or process addiction can be expressed at the same time. Thus, people can have multiple addictions, with each addiction being active to differing degrees of severity. Additionally, depression and anxiety frequently accompany addiction as co-morbid factors.

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