Scientists Say: Addiction

This disorder changes a person’s brain, driving them to seek a substance or behavior that’s harming them

a group of young adults sit in a circle in a brightly lit room while one young woman speaks

A young woman shares her feelings in a group therapy session. Therapy is one way that a person can improve their chances of recovery from addiction.

Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

Addiction (noun, “Uh-DIKT-shun”)

Addiction is a condition in which a person has a habit they can’t stop, even though it harms them or causes problems in their life. Most medical professionals consider addiction to be a disease. That is, a condition that changes organs in the body or how they function. In the case of addiction, the affected organ is the brain.

People can develop addictions to substances. Examples include drugs such as alcohol and nicotine. Prescription drugs can lead to addiction as well. A class of painkillers called opioids is an example.

But people can also become addicted to behaviors. Gambling, playing video games and shopping can become addictions if they interfere with other parts of a person’s life.

The reason people form addictions has to do with how our brains feel pleasure. One way our brain makes us feel good is by releasing “feel good” chemicals. This can happen in response to an enjoyable action or activity. Think exercising, listening to music or eating chocolate.  

But some actions — such as taking drugs or gaming — can overload this “feel good” system. Over time, this trains the brain to rely upon the substance or behavior for pleasure over other things that a person used to enjoy. The person’s brain starts to send strong signals to acquire more of that substance or behavior. Indulging in the substance or behavior again strengthens the brain’s link between that thing and feeling good. So the brain sends out more signals to get more of that thing. This cycle is what leads a person to develop an addiction.

People can overcome addiction. Their brain can change to look like that of a non-addicted brain. But it takes a lot of work. For the brain to change like this, the person usually must quit the substance or behavior altogether. They must give their body and mind time to adjust to a life without the addiction.

Overcoming cravings is very hard early on. That’s why many people recover best when in a new setting that’s free of familiar things that trigger cravings. Therapy can help guide those recovering from addiction by providing support when it feels tough to give up a behavior. Medications prescribed by a doctor can help, too. Family and friends also can help by providing support and encouragement.

In a sentence

Scientists have discovered that junk food can become an addiction due to the brain’s response to added sugar, salt and fats.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say.

Katie Grace Carpenter is a science writer and curriculum developer, with degrees in biology and biogeochemistry. She also writes science fiction and creates science videos. Katie lives in the U.S. but also spends time in Sweden with her husband, who’s a chef.

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