The brains of drug abusers may be wired differently than brains of non-addicts. That’s what chemist Joanna Fowler says she has discovered, after years of research. It’s why she thinks of addiction as a true illness.
Joanna Fowler: You know some people experiment around with drugs and don’t get addicted and some do. I think you don’t know ahead of time whether you’re one of the vulnerable ones. And I think that’s a really important message. By the time you do the experiment and find out, it may be too late, and it’s a really hard thing to stop once it sets in.
Dr. Fowler works at Brookhaven National Laboratory. She’s spent time comparing how brains are affected by methamphetamine – better known as crystal meth – and cocaine.
Joanna Fowler: And it’s day and night with respect to how widespread they are in the brain, and how fast they leave the brain. The high from methamphetamine stays a very long time, and it also is very damaging to a lot of different parts of the brain.
By contrast, said Fowler, cocaine goes straight to a single part of the brain called the reward center, causes a huge release of dopamine, and leaves – all within a half hour. But, she added, drug addiction is not just about brain chemistry.
Joanne Fowler: It’s where the drug abuser lives, it’s the friends, it’s your environmental exposure. Your genes and your biology account for some of it, but it doesn’t account for all of it. It accounts for about half.
Fowler thinks that a combination of behavior therapy, pharmacological therapy and change in environment is probably the best approach for curing addiction. Experts estimate that there are 25 million substance abusers in the United States, and that only 2 million are getting treatment.
Fowler said that studies in monkeys, for example, showed that simply changing their living situation changed their dopamine receptors, and therefore, their response to drugs. Likewise, in human addicts, she said drug abusers who return to the same home, professional, or social environment after undergoing treatment for substance abuse often relapse.
Joanna Fowler: I think the most important thing is this concept of addiction as a disease of the brain and the need to try to understand it better.
She explained the drug addiction is a much larger health problem than we might think:
Joanna Fowler: We don’t tend to think of it, but it you think of the major diseases for example – cancer and heart disease – and a large fraction of the deaths from cancer are lung cancer, a large fraction of deaths from heart disease are due to cigarette smoking. If you consider the problem of AIDS, AIDS is generally spread by the use of dirty needles from IV drug use, or risky sexual behavior secondary to stimulant abuse. If you look at violence or accidents, many of the accidents we have are people who are driving while they’re drunk, much of domestic violence occurs when people are under the influence of alcohol. Then you look at obesity, and overeating is another addiction. So I think understanding addiction and being able to treat it successfully would probably have a bigger impact on public health than anything else we know of.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.