What leads to Addiction?

There are many myths pertaining to addiction, and the reason for addiction.

Both addictive disorders and substance related disorders are very complex and can cause significant implications for the individual. The processes of biology that cause addiction involve the reward pathways in the brain.

In the past, addiction was viewed as stemming from the weakness of will, and an individuals moral failings. With the advancement in scientific research, addiction theories of biology have been widely accepted. However, they are still seen as controversial. The majority believe that addiction should be referred to as the condition that needs continued management (rather than a disease), because it promotes the idea that addiction can be controlled and managed through changes in behavior and that the person is ultimately in control of their condition.

The disease model is carried by the changes that occur in the brain because of the continued substance use. The brain attempts to change in the presence of the substance to function normally through a process of adaptation. It is declared by the disease model that the first choice of substance use may have been optional, over time behavioral choices lessened as these neurological changes occured.


In addition to the modification of one’s initial response to a substance, they also regulate:

  • Craving development
  • The distress related to periods of abstinence.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a psychological and a physical disease. Symptoms of addiction differ from one person to the next. For example, laziness or unemployment does not suggest that someone is abusing alcohol or drugs, but tolerance does. If an individual is consuming a substance and continuously increases the consumption of it to get the same response, because the person’s mind and body have become tolerant to small amounts and now need more doses to have the same effects. People use alcohol and drugs to relax, escape, or reward themselves and they gradually lead to dependent on addiction.

What are the Main Causes of Addiction?

Addiction is a progressive illness that often develops over a period of time. There are many factors that may contribute to addiction.

Environment and Addiction

The company we keep, and the individuals around us play an important role in our behaviour. For example, a family member’s actions may have direct implications on the family. If drug use is encouraged in such an environment, the likelihood of an individual falling into the same addiction is very likely.

The following factors can influence the likelihood of falling into addiction:

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Stress
  • Parental involvement.
  • Social network
  • Personal history such as physical or sexual abuse, or neglect.

According to the HuffPost, approximately 60% of teenagers in the school system are affected by drugs. Peer pressure is a topic that is highly considered among teens and adolescent demographics. In addition, it is not uncommon for adults to experience this as well. As a whole, the environment is a factor that strongly influences the substance abuse habits of an individual. Addiction is more likely to occur with prolonged use of drugs and alcohol.

Genetics and Addiction

According to a report of the American Psychological Association, heredity factors contribute about 50% or more of a person’s vulnerability to addiction. Mainstream society is reluctant to believe that it is a physical condition despite the fact that science has proved addiction does, and can, run in families. Other diseases that are linked with genetics, such as heart diseases, tend to gather more sympathetic attention.

The way in which a person is raised has a greater impact on how they grow as adults, and the same concept applies to substance addiction and abuse. When children grow older, parental substance abuse is a significant factor in the development of similar issues. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, children whose parents are addicted to alcohol and drugs are 2-4 times more likely to suffer from abuse issues as adults.

In addition to that, abuse and neglect are habitual in homes where parental substance abuse occurs. Childhood neglect by parents is four times more likely and childhood abuse is three times more likely to occur in households where parents are abusing drugs or alcohol.

Mental illness and Addiction

Is addiction directly caused by mental illness? Studies show the answer is no, however the likelihood of developing an addiction due to mental illness does significantly increase. According to the HelpGuide reports, approximately 29% of all people experiencing mental health disorders are also living with substance abuse addictions. A large fraction of individuals who are experiencing mental health illness are taking medications, and many of these medications have the potential of addiction. For example, a medicine called benzodiazepines is a class of drug that was used by over 127 million in 2011.

To escape from mental health symptoms, some people might engage in the abuse of alcohol or illicit drugs. Sometimes, individuals are unaware of what they are doing. People who spend their lives feeling anxious or depressed are unaware that they can feel different, and seek for an escape via drugs and alcohol.

Drugs and the Brain

Physical factors, such as drugs, alcohol, or other substances, are the principal cause of addiction, beginning within the brain. Neurons initiate cell to cell communication within the body, producing action potentials that release chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are negatively charged, when a chemical substance is introduced. Over time, after the development of tolerance, these neurotransmitters stop working on their own.

Alcohol and drugs also harm parts of the brain. For example, dopamine receptors, are at a higher risk of becoming damaged permanently due to the abuse of some substances. Long term use of alcohol can destroy the natural dopamine in the brain by the break down of its receptors. They function normally when under the control of alcohol. Thereby, the cycle of addiction and abuse is perpetuated.

The Role of Neurotransmitters in Addiction

Axons and dendrites are parts of the neuron which allow for cell to cell communication. Neurons send electrical impulses to the axons, and convert the impulse into chemical signals at the terminal of the axon. Neurons transmit chemical messages (neurotransmitters) across synaptic gaps and then attach to the receptors site of the receiving neuron. Synaptic gaps are the narrow spaces between the terminal of one axon to the dendrite of another neuron. After receiving the neurotransmitters, neurons convert it back to electrical signals. Millions of neurons in the brain participate in this process.

Chemical structures of drug abuse inhibits the natural neurotransmitter response, which hinders the normal neural processing, release neurotransmitters in excessive amounts, and give greater pleasure than other activities such as eating and sex. This in turn prevents the normal chemical reuptake. This means that neurotransmitters are left in the synapse, which ultimately affects the activity of other communicating neurons which are helpful in altering the mood.

When an individual engages in survival activities, the brain reward system is activated. This provides reinforcing behavior and euphoric feelings. When the reward system is activated, information passed from the ventral termental area to the nucleus accumbens and after that, it travels to the prefrontal cortex.


It is responsible for motivation, reward, and incentive and is a principal neurotransmitter involved in the addiction.

Dopamine produces strong behavioral reinforcement, compulsions, and cravings to perform certain behaviors and Euphoria. Dopamine depletion in the brain causes one’s ability to experience pleasure.


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is involved in sensory experiences, sleep, provides a sense of well-being, and has a significant role in addiction. Decreased serotonin levels can lead to

  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Intoxication
  • Depression


Glutamate is a primary excitatory brain neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain cells to fire, and is involved in learning, memory, and is associated with addiction.

Research has shown that this neurotransmitter operates independently and interacts with the dopaminergic system, and promotes the maintenance and development of addiction through:

  • Cravings
  • Reinforcement
  • Conditioning
  • Relapse

Take Away

When one feels the urge to use a substance, the reward centre of the brain is activated, and addiction develops. This explains the continued behaviour of addicts, and their need for their next fix.

Furthermore, substance-related disorders also affect the part of the brain that is responsible for decision making and emotions. Eventually, individuals begin to use substances to feel a sense of normalcy instead of feeling good to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Substance abuse combined with existing mental conditions can produce the behaviors and physical effects of addiction.

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