Despite decades of research focusing on the origins of addiction, it remains one of the most complicated diseases to understand. Unlike other medical problems, which can often be traced back to a single type of virus or bacteria, the factors associated with addiction remain more complex. Understanding what makes addiction so complicated sheds light on the importance of getting high quality, professional treatment to overcome substance abuse problems.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately half of a person’s risk for developing drug addiction can be attributed to genetic factors. This means that if your parents or siblings struggle with addiction, you are much more likely to also have problems with drinking or drug use.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drug abuse and addiction, Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, July 2014, http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction
- Mayo Clinic, Risk factors, Drug Addiction, December 2014, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/basics/risk-factors/con-20020970
- McCabe et al., Race/ethnicity and gender differences in drug use and abuse among college students, Journal of Ethnicity and Substance Abuse, 2007, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2377408/
Scientists are still studying the exact pathways, but it seems that some people are simply more susceptible to the effects of drugs. Your genes may cause you to crave drugs more intensely or to have difficulty controlling your use.
Gender and Ethnicity
Interestingly, unchangeable aspects of yourself -- such as gender and ethnicity -- may also predict whether you struggle with addiction. For example, men are significantly more likely to have substance abuse problems than women. Additionally, Caucasian and Hispanic individuals report higher levels of drinking and drug use than their African American and Asian counterparts.
The ability to look inside the brain using neuroimaging techniques like MRI or CT scans has contributed to our knowledge of the brain areas affected by drugs. Most drugs of abuse seem to impact the same brain network, known as the limbic system. This is the brain circuit that controls your response to pleasurable events, such as eating food or having sex.
When a person first tries drugs, the limbic system is highly active. This essentially translates to the brain saying, “That was great! I want to try that again!” Over time, however, the same amount of the drug may have a smaller and smaller effect as the limbic system gets used to it. This is accompanied by changes to limbic system structures that may make it harder to experience pleasure in other areas of life, too.
Other Psychological Problems
Addiction does not always occur in isolation. In fact, a high proportion of people experience co-occurring substance abuse and mental health problems.
Psychological issues might include depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. These conditions make it more likely that you will use drugs; in turn, using drugs can make symptoms of these psychological problems even worse.
Early Childhood Environment
Biology is not the only contributor to addiction. Environmental factors, particularly during childhood, also play a big role. For example, growing up in a home where a caregiver struggled with addiction makes it more likely that you will have the same problems.
Additionally, childhood abuse, lack of family involvement, peer pressure, or falling in with the “wrong crowd” can also contribute to addiction.
Adolescents are particularly likely to start experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Part of this is because the part of their brain responsible for weighing the consequences of behavior is not fully developed. This causes adolescents to be more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as substance use.
With numerous intersecting factors, we never fully know what causes an individual person to develop addiction. The complexity of addiction is what makes it so important to get individualized, professional treatment to support you in sobriety.