Understanding the Disease of Addiction: The Brain


When we talk about addiction, we must identify the nature of addiction. This is helpful not only to the people experiencing addiction themselves, but also to those around them. Over the last decade or so, the science community has begun to recognize that addiction is a brain disease.1 If a person refuses or does not pursue treatment, the disease of addiction can progress and become more severe over time.

Addiction is a Brain Disease

Addiction, or more specifically, the way an addicted brain operates, makes it difficult for an individual to control or stop their destructive behaviors. The concept of insanity—colloquially defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results—captures this idea. Imagine that you are cooking in the kitchen and grab a hot handle on a pan. In a normally functioning brain, this behavior would then stop and not be repeated, due to the negative consequence of pain. In an addicted brain, control is lost and the person is somewhat powerless over the urge to grab the hot handle. The longer one continues in active addiction, the harder it is to stop the insanity.

When looking at addiction as a disease, we need to think outside the box. For too long our culture has treated addiction as a criminal problem or moral failing and not as a medical problem.2 Imagine if you or a loved one had terminal cancer. Would you not get that person the best treatment possible? Although addiction has been formally identified as a disease by various medical societies for some time now, there is still a great deal of ignorance on the subject, even among doctors and other medical professionals.

Addicted people are sometimes seen as weak people who lack the internal willpower to stop their potentially fatal behaviors. The reality is that it is their willpower, influenced by changes in the brain, that allows their addiction to thrive.

Disease of Addiction The Brain

The word “disease” comes from Latin. “Dis” means “not,” and “ease” means “comfort.” By examining the origins of the word, we come up with “not comfort.” In other words, the word “disease” itself means “not comfortable.” Changes that take place in the brain as a result of addiction give the illusion of substance use as comfort to the addicted individual.

Recent breakthroughs in addiction research and treatment have given us hope. Along with these scientific breakthroughs, a deeper understanding of the disease of addiction has revolutionized our core values and views regarding drug abuse and addiction. We have come to understand that not only is addiction a preventable behavior, it’s also a treatable disease.3

Contributed by Mike Loy, Assistant Director of Needs Assessment


  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/body-sense/201204/emotional-and-physical-pain-activate-similar-brain-regions
  2. http://www.worldwideaddiction.com/articles/diseaseconcept.htm
  3. http://www.dualdiagnosis.org/dual-diagnosis-treatment/6-theories/

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