The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by an individual’s compulsive drug seeking behavior and use.  The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) further define Substance Use Disorder as “a disease that changes the way organs (in this case, the brain) function.”

While there is no known cure for Substance Use Disorder, it is both preventable and treatable.  Education and early intervention help avert and reduce the severity of the disease, and evidence-based treatments have proven effective in helping individuals manage the illness and lead healthy, productive lives.

Substance Use Changes the Brain

Substance Use Disorder is proven to alter the way the human brain works, and appears to rewire its fundamental structure. The human brain is wired to reward us when we do something pleasurable as behaviors trigger the release of a neurotransmitter “feel good” chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a mood enhancer and its rewards of great happiness and even euphoria encourage individuals to continue the dopamine producing behavior via the action and reward principle. As substances trigger the brain to engage in dopamine producing behavior, the brain rewires itself in harmful ways.

When someone takes a drug, their brain releases extreme amounts of dopamine. The brain then overreacts, reducing dopamine production in an attempt to normalize the sudden, sky-high levels the drugs have created. Over time, repeated substance use causes the brain to limit its natural dopamine production – meaning that the individual is less receptive to pleasure, and requires more and more stimulation (including risk-taking behaviors) and higher levels of substances in order to achieve the desired “happy” or euphoric state.

Substance Use Changes Behavior

Brain imaging of patients suffering from Substance Use Disorder confirms the presence of physical changes in the brain.  Areas that control judgement, decision making, memory, learning and behavior control are all affected.  Results of such physical brain changes include irrational, unpredictable, and even destructive behavior…pleasure-seeking regardless of costs or negative consequences.

Factors that Foster Substance Use

Scientific research indicates that three main factors contribute to an individual’s Substance Use Disorder.  They are:  Genetics, Environment, and Development.

It is important to remember that not all who try drugs or alcohol become substance abusers.  Each day thousands partake with no harmful or lasting effects.  But some are not so lucky.  Genetic pre-disposition yields a 50-75% likelihood that a person with a family history of Substance Use Disorder will also suffer from the disease.  Similarly, research demonstrates that individuals who grew up/reside in an environment of addictive behaviors are significantly more likely to develop Substance Use Disorder than those who enjoyed a protective environment.

While Substance Use Disorder can develop at any age, studies again prove that the earlier in life an individual tries drugs, the more likely substance use will occur.  Young brains are still developing.  Drug and substance use during a time or growth and cause serious and lasting damage.


Like other chronic illnesses, such as asthma or diabetes, Substance Use Disorder requires ongoing management. While there is no known cure, prevention plays a key role in reducing new cases and lessening the severity of others.  For individuals already afflicted, many options exist, including medication, behavioral therapy, peer-support, and lifestyle modifications.  It is important to seek medical attention immediately.  Each instance of substance use is unique, and each requires individualized treatment.

For information and referrals, please call your local police, or the national SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health) HELPLINE at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

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