Frequently Asked Questions About Addiction

Addiction FAQ

Scientists say no single factor can predict whether a person might become addicted to drugs. But they think about half of the risk of addiction may come from a person’s biology and the other half from his or her environment.

Frequently Asked Questions About Addiction

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Scientists say no single factor can predict whether a person might become addicted to drugs. But they think about half of the risk of addiction may come from a person’s biology and the other half from his or her environment. Some of the environmental factors that could make addiction more likely, especially among teens, include a lack of family involvement, the availability of drugs at school or in the home, or spending time with friends or family who use drugs. Smoking or injecting a drug also increases the risk of addiction, possibly because these methods have the quickest impact on the brain and body. The earlier a person begins using a drug, the more likely he or she is to become addicted. People with anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have a higher risk of drug addiction.

More recently, researchers have identified specific genes that influence a person’s risk of addiction. For instance, Scientific Council member Wade Berrettini of the University of Pennsylvania led a research team in 2014 that uncovered rare variations of a gene that reduced the risk of heroin and cocaine addiction among some people.

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It’s not uncommon for a person with a drug addiction to have another mental illness, but scientists say it’s difficult to know whether addiction is the cause of the mental illness, or whether people with mental illnesses turn to drug use to “self-medicate.” It’s also likely that some of the same genes and brain regions involved in addiction are also involved in other brain and behavior disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression.

Several studies show that in some cases marijuana can produce psychotic symptoms similar to those experienced by people with schizophrenia.

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The past 15 years of imaging studies have shown that there are more types of brain circuitry involved in addiction than researchers previously thought. For instance, these studies have shown that drugs such as cocaine can impair parts of the brain involved in problem solving, reasoning, and planning. As a result, scientists have looked for ways to strengthen these circuits in people at risk for addiction—for instance, through behavioral methods aimed at improving executive function and decision-making. Imaging studies also show that some of the brain circuits involved in addiction are impaired in mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia. Saleem M. Nicola, Ph.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee, and NARSAD Independent Investigator Alan I. Green, M.D., of Dartmouth Medical School are among the researchers using this information to explore whether medications used to treat these mental illnesses could aid the development of new treatments for addiction.