The Science of Addiction

 Joan Evans 


      During a visit to Vancouver, BC  I had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Dr. Carlton Erickson, Ph.D., Prof. of  Pharmacology, Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies, and director of the Addiction Science Research & Education Centre in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas. His Bio is more extensive but I’m going to stop there –  he is a man of science with many years of experience and achievement.  Dr. Erickson’s presentation was on substance abuse and dependency.  Since alcoholism and drug dependency is an on going problem in society, I thought I would share what I learned from the seminar.

      Dr. Erickson explained the new avenues of treatment and the proven discovery that drug dependency (alcohol or other drugs) is a chronic brain disease and should be treated as other lifelong diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma.  The last three diseases can be controlled by medication, diet and exercise, etc.  The alcoholic or drug addict requires:

 1.  detoxification,

2.  inpatient treatment (including assessment) 

3.  Aftercare.  If lapses occur with the diabetic eating sweet desserts or ice cream, we support and encourage him/her to get back to the diet.  The same type of support should be given to the drug dependent person who is in recovery as part of the aftercare. 

      Following is a short summary of what a layperson (myself) gathered from the seminar: 

  • New understanding of addiction & treatment has been discovered about this misunderstood disease.
  • Drug abuse is a problem to solve, caused by bad choice, self-anesthetization, celebration, or just wanting to get high     BUT    drug dependency is a brain disease caused by genetic vulnerability, drug use, and environmental influence.    Drug abuse is a stage that might lead to drug dependency.
  • Addiction (dependency) is a lifelong disease of the brain, damaging the cerebral cortex and limbic system. That is the part of the brain which controls problem solving, memory, impulse control and some movements such as walking, running etc.  In plain language alcohol and drug dependency mucks up our thinking and interferes with logical thought and hampers therapy.
  • The brain and liver start to repair themselves when the patient maintains sobriety.  The amount of repair differs with each individual but these bodies of ours are miraculous things.
  • Addiction is a shame-based, self-centred disease of the brain, that deters the affected person from acknowledging the ailment and seeking treatment.  75% of alcohol reliant and dependent people do not seek treatment.
  • Alcoholism is the third leading cause of death (after heart & cancer).  Alcohol kills more people than other drugs.  Just because it is legal does not mean it is less dangerous.
  • Teens who start drinking or using are at a higher risk of becoming alcohol or drug dependent.

  • Some people have a genetic tendency toward addiction.
  • Willpower has nothing to do with this disease.  The drug dependent person has as much chance of stopping without treatment as the diabetic has of telling his body to cure the problem.   Once we start treating addiction as a brain disease, the treatment success rate will rise – at present the success rate is between 20% to 30%.  A new understanding and treatments will bring the addict out of the closet and abolish the labels of weakling, loser, and sinner and wash away the shame.
  • New high-tech tools such as MRI and others allow researchers to examine the brain and its activity.  Researchers can now track the damage caused by excessive drinking or using.

If you have the opportunity to hear Dr. Carlton Erickson speak, don’t miss it.  At the end of the day’s seminar, Dr Erickson asked all participants to raise their hand and take an oath to pass this information along to others so we can stop the misunderstanding of this disease and encourage more research.  The sooner we start talking about it without shame labels the sooner the dependent person will seek treatment. 

      If you wish to know more, look at Dr. Erickson’s favourite web sites:

-  University of Texas Addiction Science Research & Education   www.utexas.edu/research/asrec

-  Nat. Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)    www.drugabuse.gov

-  Nat. Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA)    www.niaaa.nih.gov

-  Join Together Online    www.jointogether.org

- Faces & Voices of Recovery    www.facesandvoicesofrecovery.org

- Brain SPECT Imaging (Daniel Amen, M.D.)     www.amenclinic.com

- NIH/NLM Publications    www.pubmed.gov


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Thursday, October 15, 2009