By Geoff Thompson, Ph.D. (cand.), RCC
Perhaps the most popular theory of addiction—not necessarily the best, just the most popular—is the idea that addiction is a brain disease or disorder. The problem of addiction, according to this idea, is the effects of drugs on the brain. Disciples of this idea argue that drugs “hijack” the brain, leaving the addict powerless over the addiction. Scientifically, they say addiction is “compulsion”—an irresistible urge to use even if you don’t want to.
If addiction is a problem of drugs in the brain, then the solution is abstinence. Therapy is only useful if it promotes abstinence. For example, the value of AA or NA is that it promotes abstinence. All that philosophy about the higher power and spiritual principles doesn’t really do much—after all, what does spirituality have to do with a brain disease?
Because addiction is a brain disease, it also makes sense to use medications, just as we would for other brain disorders, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The most recent medications include naltrexone (for alcohol and opiates), buprenorphine (opiates), and suboxone (opiates). Modafinil, a drug for cocaine, is being experimented with. And pharmacologists are working on many others for different types of drugs. The basic idea of these medications is, as one group of researchers put it, “to shed the powerful mental associations between the drug and pleasurable feelings that underlie craving and relapse.”
Scientists have even developed vaccines for specific drugs. The logic behind this is that once vaccinated, the person can no longer get high on the drug.