Global News: The science of addiction: How our bodies get hooked on drugs, alcohol

Addiction, which affects roughly 21 per cent of Canadians at some point in their lives, can damage the brain, body and more.

Unfortunately, the illness is often portrayed as a choice — a misunderstanding that can further stigmatize people who struggle with substance use and addiction.

“Addiction is not a choice,” says Kim Hellemans, chair of the neuroscience department at Carleton University in Ottawa. “Sure, we’ll make the decision to use [the first time], but nobody decides to live that lifestyle.”
Many Canadians still don’t really know the science behind how addiction affects one’s brain and body. By talking more about what addiction is, how it feels and how it can be treated, Hellemans hopes the stigma might lessen.

What is addiction?

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) defines addiction as the presence of four things: cravings, loss of control of amount or frequency of use, compulsion to use and use despite the consequences.

The exact science remains unclear, but doctors believe there are a region and a circuit in the human brain “listening for when we engage in highly rewarding events,” said Hellemans.

“When we eat tasty food or have sex, there’s a natural reward circuit [triggered] because when we engage in these rewarding events, they tend to increase our survival.”

Most addictive substances target this system.

“Whether you shoot heroin or drink alcohol, smoke nicotine or cannabis, they all start to activate that pathway,” Hellemans said. “It translates to us feeling good.”

In people who develop addiction, doctors believe their “baseline reward pathway activation” is low.

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The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the FASD Prevention Conversation Project or its members.

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