|Nora Volkow, MD, Director, NIDA|
Addiction is common – an estimated 1 in 11 people in the United States experiences a substance use disorder in a given year. Despite significant advances in understanding and treatment, stigma still prevents many people from seeking help.
Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, speaking recently at the APA’s Annual Meeting in Toronto, talked about some of the recent advances in the understanding of addiction and called on psychiatrists to help reduce the stigma of addiction and “help to eliminate the shame and suffering that accompany the addict who experiences relapse after relapse after relapse.”
Volkow opened her speech with a moving and emotional story of how she learned of her grandfather’s alcoholism and suicide. He had died when she was a girl of 6 in Mexico, but Volkow’s mother did not reveal the truth of her grandfather’s addiction and death until many years later, when her mother was dying and after Volkow had already achieved distinction as an addiction expert.
It was a dramatic illustration of the despair experienced by people who have an addiction and continue to engage in a behavior that they may know is destroying them. She described how it was once believed that addiction was a disorder of hyperactive reward centers in the brain—that people with addiction s sought out drugs or alcohol because they were especially sensitive to the pleasure-inducing effects of dopamine.
But Volkow explained that in recent years research has revealed just the opposite: that those with addiction are actually less sensitive to the effects of dopamine. They seek out drugs because of the very potency with which they can increase dopamine in the brain, often at the expense of other pleasurable natural stimulants that do not increase dopamine so dramatically
Moreover, she emphasized that addiction to drugs disrupts multiple systems in the brain that govern the ability to plan, anticipate, and change behavior in response to changing circumstances. Volkow said it is this phenomenon that accounts for the “craving” experienced by addicts and alcoholics in response to environmental triggers—often leading to what she characterized in the account of her grandfather’s death as that “one last moment of self-hatred.”
Adapted from Psychiatric News