The science behind addiction: Is there more to be done?


Addiction is essentially a disease affecting the brain – and there has been much research into working out how this works. But do we still properly understand what drives us to such behaviour?

How the brain changes

Addiction changes the brain by rewiring its structure. This is why someone suffering from addiction can’t “just stop”. A very common misconception about addiction is that it’s a choice to start taking the substance and it’s a choice to stop – but it’s more complicated than that.

The more drugs or alcohol someone has consumed – and the longer the behaviour has become commonplace – the more the brain changes. Some brain change isn’t permanent, but it takes a lot of work to get it back to its normal state.

It is also important to acknowledge that not all addiction relates to illegal substances, far from it. Many people receive rehab support for an addiction to prescription drugs, for example. This type of addiction can be harder to notice as, from the outside, it may just look as though someone is following their doctor’s orders.

The reward

There’s one part of the brain which gets overwhelmed when there’s an addiction to something, and that is the ‘pleasure/reward circuit’. The brain has many circuits, this one gets triggered when you reward the brain – such as eating healthy foods it likes. The brain recognises that this makes you happy and will motivate you to do it again to get this good feeling. When someone is suffering from addiction, the substances hijack the pleasure/reward circuit and will latch onto the way drugs or alcohol make you feel to leave you wanting more.

The danger zone

You then have the part of the brain which warns of danger and will help you identify when you’re in harm’s way. This also gets affected by addiction, which is why someone suffering with it can’t acknowledge when they’re in danger or if they are harming anyone else. Addiction stops them from getting the perspective they need to see the damage caused by their behaviour.

The risks

Science hasn’t yet discovered why some people get addicted and others don’t, but it has found that genetics plays some role (as well as the environment where people grow up in). Of course, it is important to note that risk factors don’t always play a role, some substances – such as nicotine and heroin – are more addictive than others. But understanding risk factors can help to establish if there’s going to be a potential problem.

These can include:

Family history

Research has found that being open within a family about addiction – like you would with any other disease such as cancer or diabetes – is important. Families should talk about this with teenagers once they start to reach an age where alcohol and drugs might be available to them. When it comes to growing up with someone suffering from addiction it can go either way. Some people will want to stay away from substances after seeing the effects it has or they unconsciously follow the same path, try substances and fall into addiction. When it comes to developing an alcohol addiction, it’s thought that 40-60% of the risk can be accounted for by genetic factors.

Environment and age

There are some environmental factors to consider when it comes to addiction too. Peer pressure has been found to play a role in addiction – such as being pressured to try a cigarette as a young teenager. The brain isn’t fully developed until 25-years-old, meaning the earlier someone starts taking substances, the higher the risk of rewiring the brain to accept that as normal. Falling into the wrong crowd can be a formative experience.


It has been found that children who have been exposed to traumatic events have a higher risk of abusing substances in later life. It is the role of parents and carers to try to acknowledge the impact the traumatic event could have on the child and help to resolve any issues.

In the UK there has been much research into addiction and there are many ways to get support. The science behind addiction is evolving each year with more information about causes and side effects being found – but it’s important to remember that we don’t know everything and that each person’s circumstances is unique. Through education and understanding we can recognise some of the causes of addiction and protect the vulnerable from this – and through further research we can continue to learn more about how to spot and treat these causes.

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