September 17, 2008


“Drug [including alcohol] addictions are medical diseases which deserve parity in national healthcare programmes...” states scientist and professor Carlton Erickson, as he reveals the neurobiological research.
Although this article was first printed in Addiction Today journal in 2002, the vast majority of alcohol and drug workers remain unaware of these vital facts.  Read on...

Public and professional stigma against addictive diseases is a major social problem when dealing with conditions which have traditionally been dealt with by behavioural and spiritually-based programmes. Reducing this stigma is critical, as negative attitudes damage the level and quality of patient care – and funding for prevention, education and research.

For far too many years, the “field” of drug addiction treatment and prevention has drifted aimlessly, based on insufficient research evidence that addictions are brain diseases and about the pharmacology of addicting drugs.  Much of the confusion is based on an incomplete understanding of the differences between intentional drug abuse and pathological drug dependence, the “new term for addiction”.

There is also a great deal of misinformation about the pharmacology of addicting drugs. This picture is changing rapidly, based on new neuroscience (brain) research which strongly indicates that the pleasure pathway – the medial forebrain bundle – of the brain is affected by all addictions, particularly in the pharmacological qualities of euphoria, craving and a theoretical concept of “drug need”. 

This is the psychological correlate of behavioural “impaired control”. The neuroanatomical and neurochemical bases of drug need have yet to be demonstrated in the laboratory. But the research technology, such as brain scans, is now at hand to test the theories.

Everyone who cares about the victims of addiction must become more scientifically literate about the implications of new research findings, and ‘spread the news’ that biomedical research is on the threshold of proving what recovering people already know – that drug dependencies are medical diseases which deserve parity in present and future national healthcare programmes.

Drug dependence must also be ‘handled’ differently from drug abuse in terms of responsibility and culpability in law enforcement.

This article covers the latest research on the neurobiology of dependence, including how the brain's pleasure pathway works. It covers the differences between chemical abuse and chemical dependency, the latest therapies for drug dependency, and research methodologies which promise even more exciting breakthroughs in understanding “addictions” in the future. This information has important implications for prevention and education of the public about the true causes of drug problems, and how society can best deal with such problems.


The solution. First, get rid of “Spam”: an acronym for stigma, prejudice, anger and misunderstanding. All of these lead to myths – widely-held, inaccurate beliefs – as compared to research-generated facts.

And there are some dangerous myths in this world. These include the myths that club drugs and marijuana are not addicting... that everyone who uses cocaine or heroin is addicted... that caffeine is highly addicting... that the form of a drug and how it is taken affects its “addiction potential”... and that alcoholics can stop drinking, since all they have to do is go to AA meetings.


Brain_2 It is vital that professionals carry out assessments to distinguish between chemical abuse and dependence. As the cover story by Norman Hoffman in the last issue of Addiction Today emphasises, assessment directly affects what type of treatment is most effective for each client, and thus their care plan, choice of treatment unit and outcome results. To distinguish between the two is the most humane, most cost-effective and most professional course of action.

Chemical abuse is intentional overuse of substances in cases of celebration, anxiety, despair or ignorance. It is about people making bad choices about the use of drugs. It declines with adverse consequences, supply reduction or change in drug-use environment. Drug abusers have a major economic impact on society; for example, it is estimated that property theft to fund drug habits accounts for at least £2billion a year in the UK.

The criteria for chemical abuse, according to the DSM-IV diagnostic and statistical manual, are:

1)            a maladaptive pattern of drug use leading to impairment or distress, presenting as one or more of the following over a 12-month period –

  • recurrent use leading to failure to fulfill obligations
  • recurrent use that is physically hazardous
  • recurrent drug-related legal problems, and
  • continued use despite social/interpersonal problems

2)            the symptoms have never met the criteria for chemical dependence.

Dependence is “impaired control” over drug use, probably caused by a dysfunction in the brain's pleasure pathway. This is the disease of addiction, an “I can't stop without help” disease. It requires formal therapy and/or 12 steps and might require anti-craving drug therapy. The DSM-IV criteria for chemical dependence are:

1)            a maladaptive pattern of drug use, leading to impairment or distress, presenting as three or more of     the following over a 12-month period –

  • tolerance to the drug's actions
  • withdrawal (generally, physical withdrawal)
  • drug is used more than intended
  • there is an inability to control drug use
  • effort is expended to obtain the drug
  • important activities are replaced by drug use, and
  • drug use continues despite negative consequences

2)            two types of dependence can occur 

  • physiological dependence, including tolerance and withdrawal, and
  • non-physiological dependence, excluding tolerance and withdrawal.

The terms “physical addiction” and “psychological addiction” are no longer valid, since the DSM-IV term includes both psychological and physical components.


A five-year follow-up of 1,300 men and women (Schuckit et al 2001) found that only 3% of abusers met criteria for dependence five years after being diagnosed as abusers. But many people believe that abuse usually leads to dependence. Instead, the two conditions appear to be separate; abuse may be a milder disorder not usually progressing to dependence.


Data from the National Comorbidity Survey of 8,100 men and women aged 15-24 years old (Wagner & Anthony 2002) showed that different drugs are associated with different rates of dependence. In the 10 year study,  15-16% of cocaine users become dependent, 12-13%of alcohol users and 8% of marijuana users. Of those who became dependent on cocaine, 5-6% became dependent in the first year of use. Fully 80% of people who became dependent on cocaine over the 10 years had become dependent in the first three years.

These are only single studies which deserve more replication, but they are interesting in that they begin to break down some myths that people have about the onset of dependence in users and abusers.


So, although it “looks” as if most people evolve from abuse to dependence, people can become dependent during their first year of using drugs, including alcohol. People in recovery seem to understand that some people become “instantly” dependent with the very first use of the drug; most reports concern early onset with the use of alcohol and cocaine. There is only one explanation, and it lies in the physiology of the medial forebrain bundle, or MFB, also known as the mesolimbic dopamine system.

The neurobiological model of “impaired control” characteristics.

A key point is that the “dependence” brain areas are in the part of the brain that governs unconscious thought. Dependence is not a “lack of will power” because

  • the main problem with dependence lies in the MFB
  • problems with the frontal cortex portion of the MFB produce a pathological impairment of decision-making.

Dependence is not mainly under conscious control!


Dependence is probably due to a functional dysregulation – meaning: they aren't working right! – of one or more neurotransmitter chemicals in the MFB. These include dopamine (which is affected by cocaine, amphetamines or alcohol), serotonin (alcohol or LSD), endorphins (alcohol or opioids such as heroin), gamma-aminobutyric acid (alcohol or benzodiazepines – antianxiety agents), glutamate (alcohol) and acetylcholine (nicotine or alcohol).

Er_synapse1 The dysregulation could be related to too much or too little neurotransmission, abnormal breakdown of neurotransmitters or abnormal receptor function. How does it come about? Is it due to genetic ‘malfunctions’, to drug-induced changes, or to other aspects of the environment? Neurobiological research points to genetics and drug-induced changes as being primary causes of dependence, whereas the environment is a major, though secondary, contributor to drug abuse and thus dependence.


Abnormal genes lead to abnormal proteins. This results in abnormal transmitter-synthesising enzymes, abnormal transmitter-breakdown enzymes, or abnormal receptors. This is the cause of neurotransmitter dysregulation in the pleasure pathway. Impaired control appears to be due to this brain-chemistry disruption. It is the reason that scientists and clinicians now believe that dependence is a chronic medical brain disease.


Addicting drugs seem to ‘match’ the transmitter system that is not normal. To treat such individuals, detoxification – weaning people off the drug of choice – is the first step. Then, ideally, abstinence-based treatments are attempted, which traditionally have the greatest chance of success. But abstinence is not for everyone, so more treatment choices are becoming available through scientific research.

For some, continued use of a similar drug (such as methadone for heroin- dependent people) or the initial drug (nicotine patches for people who stop smoking) is the choice, because some people report that they “need” a chemical to “feel normal” – in other words, to overcome the non-normal transmitter system.


More options create greater chances for helping people. Today's options include some or all of the following:

  • traditional – 12-step programmes/abstinence
  • talk – inpatient/outpatient/aftercare
  • misunderstood but useful – harm reduction, including methadone
  • new – brief motivational counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, ‘significant others’ therapy, vouchers
  • medical treatment – new medications to enhance abstinence, anticraving medications, methadone, buprenorphine, vaccines, drugs to alleviate withdrawal.

So, if addictions are a medical disease, why do we treat them behaviourally? What is the similarity between behavioural or talk therapies and pharmacotherapies in the way they work? Simple. Behavioural therapies probably change brain chemistry!

If this is a brain disease, and people get better in behaviourally-based therapies, then brain chemistry has to change. Recent brain-scan research is confirming this rational conclusion.


Er_synapse1_3 The basis of chemical dependence is dysregulation of nerve cell transmission – (see picture on the right) and there is an excellent description of this on the author's university website here.

Also, most drugs used to treat mental disorders, including chemical dependence, have their most basic action on individual nerve cells

Carlton_erickson_3  Carlton Erickson PhD is a research scientist who has been studying the effects of alcohol on the brain for over 30 years. He is the Pfizer Centennial Professor of Pharmacology and director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center, College of Pharmacy, University of Texas. He has published over 150 scientific and professional articles, has co-edited and co-authored books and is associate editor of the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. He is also a recipient of the Betty Ford Center Visionary Award 2000. He has spoken to about 70,000 professionals and people in recovery since 1978 and presents every two years at the UK/European Symposium on Addictive Disorders.

He will be presenting updates to this topic at UKESAD 2009.




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This is very good and useful information for young boys, who begin to drink alcohol. After reading this article I realize that addiction is just like inviting death. This is awesome article to aware young boys just like me.

Drug Rehab

Henry Steinberger, Ph.D. (SMART Recovery)

I continue to be frustrated that articles in Addiction Today never mention SMART Recovery though this one lists: "traditional – 12-step programmes/abstinence" which is also one of today's "treatment options" but perhaps should not be mentioned without also including a supplement or alternative option like SMART Recovery which draws on the sceince-based options listed (motivatinal interviewing, CBT, etc.).

Why is it so difficult for such reknown experts in our field to be up-to-date on more than the biological substrait of addictions? Why can't they acquaint themselves with the SMART Recovery program, compare it to the traditional 12-Step program and if it makes sense to them as I trust if will, then share that knowledge with their readers on a regular basis.

Now, not speaking for SMART Recovery, but only for myself, I ask: If having a biological substrait makes an addictive behavior into a disease, how can most people who experiment with addictive substances not become addicted? Wouldn't it be clearer to say that some people have other pre-existing "diseases" (mental illnesses) which predispose them to seek and become addicted; and others by continued use due to peer influences and other non-disease processes, become addicted as they harm their brains and bodies - such that addiction rather than being a disease, is actually a form of self-inflicted injury? Also, don't similar biological mechanisms account for many positive habits? For instance, some people get addicted to running and it is not considered a harmful addiction until they need to stop for shin splints or other problems, yet we'd never call running an addiction nor discourage people from trying it and even engaging in it.

I prefer to denote a difference between harmful addictions and helpful habits, and consider that some behaviors (smoking cigarettes) are not only harmful in themselves, but very addictive - far more so than even Heroin - and yet we allow it to be sold to non-addicts, rather than be dispensed to only those who are proven to be already addicted.


The medical model claims addictions, such as alcoholism to be a disease. It is very interesting that this model has been widely accepted without an empirical proof (Schaler, 2000). It seems people turn off critical evaluation and blindly accepts this thought. Even AA, which teaches personal responsibility for actions, calls alcoholism a disease. It is understandable how someone gets cancer, lupus, or MS without any particular behaviors. However, it is baffling that someone can chose to place a cigarette to their lips and inhale, over eat, or use a drug, and call it a disease. At what point did taking an action of choice evolve into a medical condition? Each drink of alcohol or each bite of food we consume is done so with a preparation. One has to buy it, prepare it and then consume it. How is that a medical condition? This is almost too ridiculous to even debate! However, it is refuted in the following research: Szasz 1972; Fingarette 1988; Alexander 1990a & 1990b; Crawford et al. 1989; Fillmore & Kelso 1987; Heather et al. 1982; & Schaler 1996.

According to Schaler (2000), "calling addiction a 'disease' tells us more about the labeler than the labelee" (p. 18). This suggest that those who abuse drugs or alcohol chose to label themselves as having a disease to remove the responsibility for the actions. The substance user or abuser, label addiction as a disease in spite of the research from the medical community.

Pathology textbooks list diseases meeting the nosological criteria for the classification. The simple test to determine a physical disease is its presence in a corpse. Since addiction cannot be identified in a corpse, it is not listed as a disease in pathology textbooks (Schaler, 2000). Moreover, Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), who revolutionized pathology, claims there must be a recognizable alteration in bodily tissue and a change in cells, in order to be classified a disease. The bodies of drug users and heavy drinkers do not contain any such changes (Szasz, 1991, 1994). What is evident are the results of the substance abuse, but nothing to identify addiction.

Furthermore, addiction is not listed in the DSM IV and the term "alcohol dependence and abuse" has replaced the old term "alcoholism". The America Psychiatric Association has clearly demonstrated these are not organic disorder by describing them in behavioral terms and classifying them under "substance-related disorders" (Schaler, 2000). This is further supported by work conducted long ago by Wilhelm Dithey, Max Weber, and Ludwig von Miles that defined motions of the human body in two categories. They are either meaningful actions or involuntary reflexes (Schaler). The behavior of drinking heavily is not an involuntary reflex, which is neurological, but an intentional human action that expresses values (Fingarette, 1975 & 1988 and Szasz, 1987).

Research clearly holds that substance abuse and addiction are not due to a particular identifiable personality type or an organic or biological disease that can be treated by a medical doctor. These are important underpinnings in the treatment of addictions using CBT or any other therapy model. Equally important is the clients overall diagnosis of the possibility of dual-diagnosed disorders.

Mohan Sundaram

While all the medical stuff is required for de addiction I would like to share my blog on self realization that will give some insights into comppleting the loop of treatment from a holistic point of view. All disease stems from the ego a wrong understanding of the Self. If you log on to my blog I have shared some of my experiences which if implemented can hep tackle the root cause of their problems and also be used to prevent it at the grass root level by educating people before the problems occur on the purpose of life and how to overcome the effect of the ego. Please do feel free to vist my blog and use the material. If you have any questions you would like to ask me I would be more than glad to respond.

With regards


Articles to read:





the word disease: a disorder or incorrectly functioing organ (brain is a organ),part,structure, or system of body resulting from the effection, poisons (alcohol,drugs can be poison),nutrtional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity (alcohol,drugs) or unfavorable enviormental factors illness;sickness;alment. People just dont grow up one day and say (I would like to become a alcoholic or addict). babies born with dependence on drugs had no choice to choose addiction.

Heather Mc Duling

Thank you for such an informative article. I had never thought of dependence and abuse as 2 separate illnesses, but I fully understand your article. I have been involved in recovery centres for over 25 years (I am in recovery myself) and was very excited to read your comments. Keep up the good work!
Heather Mc Duling

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thank your this article is give me a knowledge to me its very helpful and i recommend to all my friends to read it. its also helpful all my fellow one.

Ray baker

Thank you for this highly informative article highlighting the difference between drug abuse and dependence. Unfortunately, although drug abuse does not necessarily progress to drug dependence, and therefore can be regarded as separate 'conditions', none of us know with any certainty whether we are susceptible until we experiment. Given the society in which we live, this experimentation is virtually a requirement of acceptance rendering those with the predisposition of dependence at the mercy of the unseen, underlying malevolency.

Are there any studies taking place for the purpose of positively identifying those with the predisposition?

Many thanks for this thought provoking article.

Ray Baker

Laura Necchi-Ghiri

Surely it is possible to view addiction as a compulsive behaviour which is deployed to medicate an underlying neurological problem? If you read 'Why Love Matters' by Sue Gerhardt, you can easily see how early emotional deficits in infancy from inadequate parenting (often by substance-using parents) can literally shape a baby's brain, especially the 'social' area - the pre-frontal cortex, resulting in raised anxiety levels and the need for self-medication through substance use to achieve emotional regulation. Substance misuse is both an illness and a problematic behaviour, and needs a holistic response.

Beth Burgess - Smyls Recovery Coaching

I don't think people will ever agree on the modality of this illness - whether you are an alcoholic from birth or 'grow' into one, whether the basis is mainly medical, phyical or mental - but I loved your blog because it objectifies addiction. No, it is not the addicts fault.

As you say, there is a lot of stigma and prejudice towards addicts. As a Recovery Coach, I am open about being an alcoholic (non-drinking obviously!) because I think it is important for people to see examples of people who are not bothered by the stigma but rise above it.

Part of my own business mission is to help to dissipate the stigma attached to alcoholics, in any capacity I can. Thanks for your objective article.

Best Wishes,
Beth Burgess


I completely agree with Kelly and have found Schaler's work to be refreshing in its viewpoint. But ultimately, it doesn't really matter if addiction is a disease or whether it is the result of heredity, learned behaviour, or any other cause - ultimately, people make a CHOICE about whether they will continue their addictive behaviours or they won't. As an Addictions Therapist with nearly 25 years clean and sober, it is a choice I make every day along with millions of other people all over the world. And I know that if I can do this, anyone can - if they make that choice.

I also strongly believe in the role of therapy as a significant aid to assist people to stop their addictive behaviours - because until we understand why we're continuing our addictions and sabotaging our own lives, we will continue to do that.

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